Surgeon General Recommends Adding a Warning Label to Social Media Apps To Curb the Youth Mental Health Crisis

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: Jun 17, 2024

The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, called a special media on Monday. He informed Congress that a serious warning label is needed for social media platforms.

Murthy is a proponent of stopping the emerging mental health crisis among young people. The General believes that social media is an imminent threat that needs more control and oversight.

Specifics of the Warning

Murthy said that social media is “an important contributor” to the mental health epidemic in the United States.

A hand holding a cellphone with several social media apps on the screen

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His vision of a warning would include language that alerts users to the potential health threat of certain apps and websites. “A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe,” he wrote.

Social Media Officially Declared a Health Threat

In February of this year, the mayor of New York City officially declared social media apps the cause of a mental health crisis. The dangerous design of the websites makes them increasingly addictive and especially dangerous to young minds.

Black and white photograph of three friends using their smartphone for social media

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Mayor Eric Adams said in his address to the city that: “Just as the surgeon general did with tobacco and guns, we are treating social media like other public health hazards. That’s why today, Dr. Ashwin Vasan is issuing a Health Commissioner Advisory, officially designating social media as a public health crisis hazard in New York City.”

A History of Tobacco Warning Labels

The first time a warning label appeared on a pack of cigarettes was in 1965 when Surgeon General Luther L. Terry made the landmark decision.

A red and black no smoking sign applied to a reflective window

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A report completed the previous year showed that cigarette smoking was linked to lung cancer and heart disease. The first label read: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Warning Labels Can Augment Consumer Behaviour

Just as warning labels effectively curbed the behaviour of smokers, the current Surgeon General thinks that warning labels on social media apps can make them less dangerous

A lit cigarette sitting on a railing

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Although he acknowledged the limitations that a label alone could make, he stated, “Evidence from tobacco labels shows that surgeon general’s warnings can increase awareness and change behavior.”

Schools Have Been Trying to Ban Social Media and Cell Phones

For years, teachers, principals, and school staff have noted how negatively cell phones, social media, and direct access to the Internet have impacted students.

A classroom with multiple students seated at their desks facing the teacher at the front of the room

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One school district, the Livingston Parish Public School District, has sued TikTok and Instagram for directly harming more than 25,000 students in their care. The lawsuit claims that social media platforms intentionally keep children engaged while stunting their emotional and physical development.


Teenagers Spend More Than 5 Hours a Day on Apps

The American Psychological Association notes that most teenagers spend roughly five hours daily on apps like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.

A young girl stands with her backpack against a brick wall

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The 2019 study also found that a large proportion of young adults dealing with suicidal thoughts increased by more than 47% from 2008 to 2017, which directly correlates to the rise of social media apps.


Things Have Only Gotten Worse Since the Pandemic

Since the closures of schools, businesses, and social clubs in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, social media use and phone addictions have only gotten worse in young people.

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Many studies have shown that since 2012, student test scores have been dramatically decreasing. Not only that, the emotional health and mental well-being of kids and teenagers were drastically low during a time when they were forced to self-isolate. For many, going to school was their only opportunity to socialize; completing school through streaming could have done more damage than helped.


Meta CEO Apologized to Parents for His Role in Poor Mental Health

During a Congressional hearing on the very subject, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to parents for the role that Meta platforms have played in the mental health decline and suicide rates of young people.

Mark Zuckerberg photographed as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building

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“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” he said. “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”


Cellphone Usage Often Gets in the Way of In-Person Interactions

One of the biggest barriers to improving the mental health of kids and teenagers is the lack of face-to-face interactions, which has been proven to drastically improve mood and emotional skills.

A young boy with curly hair and a blue shirt sits at his desk while looking at a cellphone

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In a statement on the issue, Murthy said, “For too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends.”


More Research Is Needed on the Impact

Because of how quickly technology progresses, comprehensive studies that show the effects of cellphone use are lagging behind.

A group of people huddled around their cellphones

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Experts are concerned that extreme damage has already been done and may be irreversible.


Warning Labels Are Just the Beginning

The Surgeon General notes that a warning label is just the beginning of his quest to stop the mental health crisis raging in the country.

A man with grey hair sitting in front of an orange background

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It’s unknown if further social media bans on school grounds could assist with the issue. For now, the light measure of a warning label may not be enough to stop the damage.