". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


‘Our Children’s Well-Being Is at Stake’: Surgeon General Calls for Social Media Warning Labels

June 18, 2024

Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, has been sounding the alarm on the harmful effects of social media for some time now. Murthy, alongside other health professionals, has fought to shine a spotlight on the “mental health crisis” plaguing younger generations. And social media, they say, has only poured gasoline on this blaze of a crisis.

On Monday, Murthy published an essay outlining his ever-increasing concerns with the way technology effects the brain — particularly of young, developing individuals. He pleaded for Congress to act upon his request to add a “warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.” But this, the surgeon general urged, requires not only congressional action, but also the support from society at large.

“To be clear,” Murthy wrote in his essay, “a warning label would not, on its own, make social media safe for young people.” However, a warning label does have a purpose in effectively altering behavior. When warning labels were put on smoking products, it “began a 50-year decline in smoking,” The New York Times pointed out. “When the warning labels first appeared, around 42 percent of U.S. adults were daily cigarette smokers; by 2021, that portion had dropped to 11.5 percent.”

There happen to be countless examples of how warning labels affect the choices we make. It is why pro-life advocates are so passionate about ensuring the abortion drug, mifepristone, has accurate warnings associated with it due to the extremely dangerous consequences. Construction workers put out caution signs when they’re working on the road, simply because the warnings help drivers be aware of objects and workers to look out for. Kids’ toys have warning labels that indicate choking hazards, skin products have warning labels that specify potential allergic reactions, and the list goes on. What the surgeon general is trying to convey is that a simple warning label for social media, while it doesn’t rid society of all its negative impact, could be the start we need for protecting children.

Murthy made it clear “it is time” for this push to be made. As he wrote:

“Legislation from Congress should shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds. 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.

“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. While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words. We need proof.”

Some have already pushed against Murthy’s pleas, saying his proposed warning label could be a threat to free speech. Others have contested the very notion that social media has harmful consequences. And yet, Murthy isn’t the only one to expose the realities that social media use is linked to increased rates of depression and anxiety. In his article, Murthy shared the story of a mother whose daughter ended her life as a result of cyber-bullying. “Lori had been diligent, monitoring her daughter’s accounts and phone daily,” he wrote, “but harm still found her child.”

And Lori is not the only parent who has struggled to keep their children safe from online dangers. Looking out into society, we can see how the government has enforced the use of seatbelts in cars, helmets on motorcycles, and other such safety rails. But as Murthy put it, “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. 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.”

Why is it, the surgeon general asked, “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?” Is this a matter of not having the means? At least according to Murthy, we have the means. Nor is it “a failure of willpower and parenting,” he added. Rather, the harms we see “are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability.” Murthy urged, “We have the expertise, resources and tools to make social media safe for our kids. Now is the time to summon the will to act. Our children’s well-being is at stake.” And this call is being heeded by many.

The surgeon general’s cry for help received support from Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who are also “the authors of the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to take a range of steps to protect minors on social media but does not include warning labels,” NYT reported. Thankfully, his most recent call has found plenty of allies from both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps most clear in Murthy’s messaging is the notion that if there’s a will, there’s a way. When it comes to change, it needs to come from all areas of society. It’s not just Congress, nor is the burden placed solely on the shoulders of Big Tech. It’s on the schools, parents, public health leaders, and individuals that make up this country who are capable of making changes that protect children.

Murthy put it well when he wrote: “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. You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly.” Children are being swept up by the manipulative allure of social media, only to find themselves isolated in a world of false realities that are hurting them beyond what meets the eye.

So, will you stand with people like Murthy and not only demand a change, but be part of that change?

Sarah Holliday is a reporter at The Washington Stand.