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The Surgeon General’s Misleading Claims About Social Media’s Risk To Children Should Come With Its Own Warning Label

The Surgeon General’s Misleading Claims About Social Media’s Risk To Children Should Come With Its Own Warning Label

June 25, 2024

The U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy published a New York Times op-ed on June 17, 2024 arguing that social media poses such a threat to children’s mental health that these platforms should come with a warning label like cigarettes and alcohol. However, his argument is flawed on multiple levels: There is no scientific consensus that social media is causing mental health issues among youth; social media use among youth does not present a similar level of risk as tobacco and alcohol use; and the alleged risks of social media come from interaction with specific types of content, not from the platforms themselves.

First, a warning label on social media would imply that, like cigarettes and alcohol, there are scientifically proven health harms from social media use. For example, there are clear linkages between cigarette use and increased risks of cancer and lung disease. But similar linkages don’t exist for social media. The Surgeon General’s own advisory on children’s online safety in 2023 concluded there is a lack of evidence to determine whether social media harms children.

Second, cigarettes and alcohol present completely different levels of risks for children than social media. Most notably, there is no safe level of consumption for cigarettes and alcohol for children. Alcohol and tobacco products are always dangerous to children, regardless of the brand or flavor, because they all contain the same risky chemical compounds. But not all social media sites are the same, and trying to treat them the same would be a mistake. As the American Psychological Association noted earlier this year, “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.” Indeed, there are countless positive uses of social media for children, including to explore art and music, monitor news and sports, and connect with friends and family.

Third, applying warning labels to social media platforms, instead of specific content, is misguided because it is too far removed from the alleged problems. Doing so would be like putting warning labels on convenience stores because they sell alcohol and tobacco, rather than labeling the harmful products themselves. Indeed, many social media platforms already apply warning labels for objectionable content. For example, X (formerly Twitter) warns users when posts may include violent or sexually explicit material and blocks the content from view until users click the “show content” button. Instagram has a similar policy of blocking content until a user grants permission to see the post. A Surgeon General warning for the entire platform would add little value, instead cluttering the platforms much like the frequently ignored cookie banners on websites.

The Surgeon General cannot unilaterally impose a warning label on social media without Congressional approval, so his op-ed does not reflect a policy change, but rather an attempt to further spread the narrative that social media is dangerous to children, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support this claim. Unfortunately, this playbook is not new. In the early 1980s then-Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop argued that video games led to violence, social isolation, addictive behavior, and poor health outcomes among children. Despite a lack of scientific evidence (both then and now), states and Congress still pursued many initiatives to reduce the alleged risks from video games. Rather than feed into this new moral panic about social media with threats of warning labels, the Surgeon General should remember the doctor’s credo of “do no harm” and stick to the facts and science.

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