Social media could come with a warning label

“It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said in The New York Times. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and X can create “significant mental health harms for adolescents,” which is why Congress should act to require them to issue warnings to protect America’s young people “from online harassment, abuse and exploitation” that are amplified by algorithmic feeds. “The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children.”

Similar warning labels — linking tobacco use to cancer and other health problems — have been affixed to every pack of cigarettes since 1965, said Time. With social media, the “mental health impacts are hard to ignore.” Young adults reporting suicidal thoughts increased by 47% between 2008 and 2017, “just as social media use began to climb.” That’s a sign that it’s time to pull back from social media saturation. “But a label alone won’t make social media safer.”

‘Too addicted’

A warning label “is the least we can do,” Pamela Paul said at The New York Times — “a mere Band-Aid on a suppurating wound.” The next step? Follow Europe’s example and ban social media use for kids under the age of 16. Don’t worry about free speech objections to such a plan. “We don’t allow hard liquor to be advertised during children’s programming.” But it will be difficult to pass such rules: “Many people are too addicted to social media themselves to fight for laws that would unstick their kids.”

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Kids and parents with tech addictions “aren’t going to be swayed by a health bureaucrat’s warning label,” Liz Wolfe said at Reason. The solution to the problems caused by social media isn’t government action — save for “anodyne” efforts like banning phones from classrooms. Instead, “proper parenting” is the answer. That’s possible without congressional action. “The parents who are most likely to guide their kids to be good stewards of technology didn’t need these warning labels in the first place.”

‘Moral panic’

Murthy’s proposal is just another example of “politicians jumping on the moral panic bandwagon,” Mike Masnick said at The Daily Beast. Studies may show that young people are struggling with mental health — but they don’t prove that social media is the reason. The American Psychological Association, for example, ruled that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.” Instead, the problems faced by adolescents are “often just a reflection of their offline lives.” 

Getting Congress to act might be difficult, Politico said. Murthy and the White House “can make an announcement, but I don’t think they’ll be able to get bipartisan support,” said a tech policy consultant. But with concern about the effects of social media growing, you’ll likely see more state-level pushes for warning labels and other policies to protect young people from technology-driven harms. A warning label “sort of wakes the public up” said one California advocate. Expect pushback from the tech industry, though. “In reality,” said one official with a tech lobbying group, “every child is different and struggles with their own challenges.”

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