WHAT WOULD A HEALTH WARNING LABEL ON SOCIAL MEDIA APPS LOOK LIKE?

Social media platforms should have a label warning kids, teens and their parents that social media "has not been proven safe," US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy wrote in an opinion piece published Monday in the New York Times

Tying social media use to the ongoing mental health crisis among young people, Murthy highlighted the younger generation's dependence on social media as an "important contributor." 

A warning label on social media apps -- which require action from Congress and lawmakers to become a reality -- wouldn't necessarily change social media, but it may have the potential to "increase awareness and change behavior," according to Murthy, as he explained was the case in tobacco studies.

The surgeon general's stance on health risks associated with social media use isn't new; last year, Murthy issued a health advisory over social media's influence on young people's sleep, physical activity and real-life connections with other people, all of which may feed into rising rates of anxiety and depression. However, a surgeon general's warning would formally acknowledge the risks of using social media platforms, which have traditionally been marketed for their positive impacts on growing community and increasing communication.

As of now, nothing has changed, but here's what we know about social media's link to health and wellness. 

Read more: Social Media Still Isn't a Safe Space for Children. A Crackdown Is Underway

What would a warning label on social media look like? 

We don't know yet. Any label would need to be approved by Congress first, to which Murthy appealed in his op-ed, urging legislators to "shield young people" from exposure to violent or harmful content online, prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data, and restrict features that encourage more scrolling and contribute to excessive use.

It's also unclear how such a legislation would affect social media companies, or how much pushback there would be. Warning labels are applied to alcohol and cigarettes -- products that have been the subject of ongoing public health debate and have clearly defined health risks when misused. Murthy told CNN that alcohol and cigarettes are the only two products that have surgeon general warning labels. 

Moves to add health warnings to other products, like soda, have also brought with it conversations about free speech.

The health impacts -- and benefits -- of social media 

In the Times op-ed, Murthy cited research finding that youth who spend more than three hours a day on social media may have twice the risk of developing anxiety or depression symptoms and other consequences of "internalizing problems," which may be difficult to detect because they're not necessarily detectible through behavior. 

As of summer 2023, US teenagers spent an average of 4.8 hours on social media, according to a Gallup survey that Murthy also referenced.

He also pointed to negative consequences he's observed by talking with students, including feelings of "endless comparison," the "feeling of being addicted" and "difficulty having real conversations on platforms that too often fostered outrage and bullying." 

According to the Child Mind Institute, untangling the link between social media and adverse mental health outcomes in young people can be difficult, because kids who feel isolated use social media more, but using social media can make people feel more isolated. It's a cycle.

Excessive screen time has been linked to physical inactivity, reduced sleep quality, poor body perception, poor nutrition and anxiety, and depression. Plus, kids online may be exposed to graphic or harmful content that can have dangerous consequences. But how kids and teens use social media, and the content they interact with, may also depend on their real-life environment. Claiming social media use to be "not inherently beneficial or harmful," the American Psychological Association reported last year that "the effects of social media are dependent on adolescents' own personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances."

In a 2024 report on social media's impact on kids and teens, the APA outlined details on how brain development, starting at around age 10 and continuing into someone's mid-20s, is more "hypersensitive" to feedback from peers; meaning they'll make more choices to gain the approval of other people and are more sensitive to perceived rejection. Younger people's minds are also underdeveloped when it comes to impulse control and are particularly wired for relationship-building, both factors that can influence social media use. Per the APA, social media has also been named as one of the main reasons young people aren't getting enough sleep

However, young people may experience positive impacts from social media, too. For example, LGBTQ+ youths in need of identity-affirming content and social support may find community where they otherwise wouldn't, as well as other underrepresented populations who may not feel a sense of belonging in their real-life environments.

2024-06-18T22:55:01Z dg43tfdfdgfd