US surgeon general calls for tobacco-style warning label on social media platforms

FILE - Instagram reactions are displayed on a smartphone screen on May 1, 2024. (Photo by Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Warning labels on social media platforms should be required, similar to the mandatory labels on cigarette packages, according to the U.S. surgeon general. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy called on Congress to implement such legislation in an opinion piece published on Monday in The New York Times. Murthy said that social media is a contributing factor in the mental health crisis among young people.

"It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents," Murphy wrote. 

"A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe," he added. "Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior."

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Social media warning label just one part of necessary steps, Murthy says

In the piece, Murthy noted how the use of just a warning label wouldn't make social media safe for young people, but would be a part of the steps needed.

Last year, the surgeon general warned that there wasn't enough evidence to show that social media is safe for children and teens. 

He said at the time that policymakers needed to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate things like car seats, baby formula, medication and other products children use.

On Monday, Murthy said Congress needs to pass legislation that will protect young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content.

"The measures should prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children and should restrict the use of features like push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use," Murthy wrote.

Murthy is also recommending that companies be required to share all their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public – which they currently don't do – and allow independent safety audits.

Schools and parents also need to participate in providing phone-free times and that doctors, nurses and other clinicians should help guide families toward safer practices, he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.