Social media sites should be labelled as health risks, says US health official

The surgeon general in his uniform, holding a microphone
Dr Vivek Murthy said social media has contributed to a mental health emergency among teens - Susan Walsh/AP

Cigarette-style health warnings should be displayed on social media sites to keep young people safe, the most senior doctor in the US has said.

Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, said “unleashing powerful technology” which had never been proven safe had contributed to a mental health “emergency” among teenagers.

He urged Congress to force social media firms to display health warnings, adding that he worried about his two children being exposed to “harmful content or dangerous people” online.

Dr Murthy admitted the move would not automatically clean up social media, but said it would lead to a change in attitudes and behaviour.

Congress should also introduce legislation to “shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears”, he wrote in the New York Times.

He added: “The measures should prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children and should restrict the use of features… which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.”

Dr Murthy speaking at a podium
The surgeon general is the most senior US doctor - Jessica McGowan/Getty

Platforms should be transparent about research they have conducted about the impacts they have on health, Dr Murthy said, adding: “Americans need more than words. We need proof”.

Research from Instagram-owner Facebook – now Meta – found that the platform was harmful to its teenage user base, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2021.

“Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” one internal Facebook document said.

Parents ‘feel shame’

Dr Murthy claimed that parents can feel powerless as they try to keep their children safe online, which he said was often a source of “stress and anxiety – and even shame”.

“One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it,” he wrote.

“There is no seatbelt for parents to click, no helmet to snap in place, no assurance that trusted experts have investigated and ensured that these platforms are safe for our kids.

“There are just parents and their children, trying to figure it out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world.”

Congress introduced warnings on packs of cigarettes after an intervention by the surgeon general in 1965, in a landmark report linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease.