surgeon general vivek murphy

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is seen in the U.S. Capitol on January 23, 2024.

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Child Advocates Back Surgeon General's Call for Tobacco-Like Warnings on Social Media

Like cigarettes, online platforms denounced as products "whose business model depends on addicting kids."

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Monday called for warning labels on social media that address platforms' mental health effects on adolescents, drawing support from experts and advocacy groups.

Murthy issued the call in an op-ed in The New York Times, citing social media platforms' association with "significant mental health harms" for adolescents and connecting it to a mental health crisis among young people. He said he'd push for congressional action, which would be required for a formal surgeon general's warning to be issued.

"Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes, or food?" Murthy wrote. "These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency, or accountability."

Murthy drew attention to the power disparity between parents who don't know how to keep their children safe and companies that can design products based on profit motives.

"There is no seatbelt for parents to click, no helmet to snap in place, no assurance that trusted experts have investigated and ensured that these platforms are safe for our kids," Murthy wrote. "There are just parents and their children, trying to figure it out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world."

Experts supported the surgeon general's call, noting that the ad-driven platforms—which vacuum up huge amounts of personal data regardless of the users age—are designed to be addictive for children.

"Social media today is like tobacco decades ago: It's a product whose business model depends on addicting kids," Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, an advocacy group, said in an emailed statement. "And as with cigarettes, a surgeon general's warning label is a critical step toward mitigating the threat to children."

Major social media platforms made nearly $11 billion in advertising revenue from U.S.-based users under age 18 in 2022, with YouTube alone making nearly $1 billion off of users age 12 and under, a recent study showed.

The human brain continues to develop until the mid-to-late 20s, and the prefrontal cortex that controls decision-making and prioritization of tasks is among the last parts to develop, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

"We can give our children smartphones, or we can give them a childhood," X user John Stoffel said in response to the surgeon general's call. "We can't give them both."

NBC News reported Monday that social media companies gave a muted response to the surgeon general's warning.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Anxious Generation, a new book that has amplified discussions of the harm social media may be inflicting on young people, praised the surgeon general on Monday. "Thank you, Surgeon General Murthy, for your leadership on this issue," Haidt wrote on X. "Yes, this is a consumer product that is unsafe for children and teens," he added.

Haidt has tied the rise of social media in the late 2000s to a prolonged rise in suicidal behavior since that time, though other experts have cited other possible causes, including "economic hardship, social isolation, racism, school shootings and the opioid crisis," according to The Times, which reported on the op-ed that it published.

In the op-ed, Murthy told the story of a Colorado woman whose teenage daughter had committed suicide after being bullied on social media. That woman is Lori Schott, a member of advocacy group Parents for Safe Online Spaces, who made a statement in conjunction with Fairplay on Tuesday.

"Just as we have strict warnings and regulations for car seats, baby formula, and the like, we must also ensure that parents and children are fully informed about the real dangers that social media can pose," Schott said.

Murthy's call for warning labels follows an advisory he put out last year warning of evidence of social media's "profound risk" to the mental health of children and adolescents, which drew praise from many medical and psychology associations.

Two proposed congressional bills, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which Fairplay supports, and an update to the existing Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, sometimes called COPPA 2.0, deal with social media regulation and data privacy. Murthy didn't specify support for either bill but did call for tighter regulations—and soon.

"One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information," Murthy wrote. "You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly."

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