Cigarette-style warnings on social media risks to protect children: US surgeon general

Cigarette-style warnings on social media risks to protect children: US surgeon general

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Dr Vivek Murthy slammed social networks for emerging as an “important contributor” to the “mental health crisis” plaguing the youth of America. 

There is an association between social media use and mental health harms for adolescents, wrote Dr Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, in an op-ed published in the New York Times last month. He called for Congress to put warning labels on social media platforms, similar to those on cigarettes, to protect children from mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Such labels, he reasoned, would remind children and parents that social media use has not been proved to be safe.

Is that all it will take to address the issue? Perhaps, not. It could be an important first step though. “Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours,” Murthy wrote in the article. “Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.”

Murthy slammed social networks for emerging as an “important contributor” to the “mental health crisis” plaguing the youth of America and called for action to “require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms”. “Evidence from tobacco labels shows that surgeon general’s warnings can increase awareness and change behaviour,” he noted, adding that such labels can help parents become more aware of the harmfulness social networks can cause their children.

Murthy also called on Congress to consider making it illegal for social media platforms to collect “sensitive data from children” and also “restrict” adolescents from receiving “features like push notifications, autoplay, and infinite scroll” on their devices, which he claims “prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.”

“Additionally, companies must be required to share all of their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public — currently they do not — and allow independent safety audits,” he wrote. 

While that may not happen anytime in the near future, we could perhaps start by practising self-regulation in our social media use and lead by example for the next generation. 

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