The U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has proposed warning labels on social media apps like those on tobacco and alcohol products to address the youth mental health crisis linked to social media.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times announcing his call for a warning label. 

He highlighted studies showing that teens who spend three hours a day on social media double their risk of depression, with many teens spending nearly five hours daily on these platforms.

Murthy is calling on Congress to pass legislation requiring social media companies to include warnings about the potential harms of social media, emphasizing the need for parental awareness. He drew parallels to warning labels that helped reduce cigarette smoking rates.

Why the Surgeon General Is Calling for Warning Labels

Murthy has long warned about the dangers of social media on children’s mental health. In May 2023, he issued an advisory highlighting the lack of evidence proving social media is safe for young people, labeling it a “profound risk of harm.” 

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

He has previously said that 13-year-old teens are too young to join social media platforms and believes parents should restrict their children’s social media use.

Murthy urged Congress to act swiftly since, as surgeon general, he lacks the authority to order warning labels himself.

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Lawsuits Claim Social Media Harm

Murthy’s call for warning labels comes amid an ongoing wave of lawsuits about social media’s impact on young people. As of June 2024, 475 lawsuits were pending in a federal multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the Northern District of California. 

These lawsuits claim that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube cause mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts among children and teens. The plaintiffs argue that social media companies were aware of these risks but failed to warn users.

Murthy’s proposal for warning labels is part of a broader effort to increase oversight and protection for children using social media. However, he acknowledges that warning labels alone are not enough. 

“One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it,” Murthy wrote. “That is how parents tell me they feel when it comes to social media — helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms.”

He has suggested other measures, such as making schools phone-free environments and encouraging parents to delay their children’s social media use until after middle school. Some states have also started individual investigations into potential social media harm, focusing on the mental health toll on teens.