U.S. Surgeon General, Social Media Platforms, Vivek H. Murthy

U.S. Surgeon General Calls For Warning Labels On Social Media Platforms

Murthy’s call is reflective of a broader movement for the government to more tightly regulate technology companies and social media where it concerns the mental health of its teenage users.

Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, called for warning labels on social media platforms in an op-ed on June 17 for The New York Times. Murthy’s call is reflective of a broader movement for the government to more tightly regulate technology companies and social media where it concerns the mental health of its teenage users. 

As the Washington Post reported, Murthy’s argument centers around research that indicates that adolescents who spend a lot of time on social media platforms are more at risk of anxiety and depression and testimony from young people themselves who say that social media has negatively impacted their body image. 

As Murthy told the outlet, “What we need…is something clear that people can see regularly when they use social media that tells them, frankly, what we now know as a public health and medical establishment.”

In April, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told The New Yorker that he believes social media companies are harming children, particularly teenage girls. Haidt also pointed to what he described as an arbitrary lowering of the digital age of consent from 16 to 13. “The way that regulation works in the United States—Congress did only two things, and both of them ended up being terrible.”

Haidt continued, “The first was the COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The question there was how old you have to be before you can give away personal data, and a company can monetize your data without your parent’s knowledge or consent. Representative Ed Markey—now he’s Senator Markey—was a lead author on the bill, and he thought, after consultation, sixteen. Sixteen is the age at which you get your driver’s license; you’re a little more independent. But various lobbyists united to push it down to thirteen, and there is zero enforcement.”

According to Murthy’s op-ed, Congress is positioned as a key cog in protecting children from technology companies. Children’s online safety advocates like Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, caution that Murthy’s warning labels proposal does no good unless there are reforms that affect technology companies. “It’s the overall online media business model requiring regulation, including antitrust, market governance rules, consumer protection policies, privacy laws that really limit tactics, and public funding for content. Warning labels are illusory safeguard without serious reforms.” Chester wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

Technology companies, however, are fighting against regulation, mostly through the tech trade association NetChoice, which counts Amazon, Meta, and Google among its members. NetChoice, as the Post reports, is responsible for leading attempts to stop states from reining in technology companies. Carl Szabo, the group’s vice president and general counsel, told the Post that parents should regulate their children’s use of social media platforms. “Parents and guardians are the most appropriately situated to handle these unique needs of their children — not the government or tech companies.”

Meanwhile, Murthy closed his argument for making social media safer for young people by referencing how the government mandated safety belts in response to unsafe vehicles. “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? 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 concluded, “The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children. Students like Tina and mothers like Lori do not want to be told that change takes time, that the issue is too complicated or that the status quo is too hard to alter. 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.”

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