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Warning labels for social media?

The title question is one that we will apparently be wrestling with in the immediate future. Citing the many studies suggesting that social media usage by children can lead to mental health issues, particularly when such usage is excessive, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on Congress to place warning labels on social media platforms similar to the warnings we already place on cigarettes and other tobacco products. He expanded on his reasoning in an op-ed published in the New York Times this week, stating that excessive screen time negatively alters the brains of adolescents. Such underage users are also prone to increased instances of anxiety or depression. So is such a mandatory warning system even possible? And if so, would it do any good? 

From National Review:

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called for Congress to place warning labels on social-media platforms on Monday, similar to the labels for cigarettes and alcohol, in order to protect kids’ mental health.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy wrote in a New York Times op-ed, warning that prolonged screen time negatively alters an adolescent’s brain.

To illustrate his point, he cited a 2019 American Medical Association study, which concluded that teens who spend more than three hours per day on social media double their risk of anxiety and depression. According to a 2023 Gallup poll, the average number of hours that teens spend on social media a day amounts to 4.8 hours — well over the three-hour mark.

This proposal is certainly more complicated than it might appear at first glance. I'm not going to immediately throw cold water over Murthy's plan because I too have been growing increasingly concerned about the toxic effects of social media on everyone, particularly children. This also isn't a question of whether or not the Surgeon General can mandate such a warning via Congress. They certainly can. We've done it for tobacco, so this sounds like something they should be able to do if they wish.

It's more of a question of "should they" than "can they." I have thus far been unable to come up with any situation where adding a warning would worsen the situation. But it's also unclear if it would produce any positive results. Cigarettes have carried warning labels since 1965. It's true that smoking rates have thankfully plummeted since then, but plenty of people still smoke every day despite the warnings. Also, the decrease may be more attributable to public awareness and education campaigns than the Surgeon General's warning labels.

There also seems to be a significant difference in the causal foundations of the problems being addressed in each case. Few people have trouble drawing a direct line between smoking and diseases like cancer and other ill effects. All of the available data bear that out. Mental and emotional health issues are more tenuous and can have multiple causes. We would need to see the specific warnings that are settled on if this is done and then we will require time to see if the wording is crafted well enough to make them effective.

It's probably also a mistake to address these questions in reference to a generic tag of "social media." There are no healthy cigarettes, though some are allegedly "less bad" than others. But not everything on the web is toxic and not every person represents a threat. Following local government or weather-tracking accounts can provide valuable, useful information to users. Conversations on Twitter or Facebook with your close friends and relatives should generally be far less harmful than being contacted by strangers who begin asking for kiddie porn pictures. The point is, that while screen time should probably be limited, it's not simply a question of how long children are spending looking at screens. We need to be more aware of precisely what it is that they are being exposed to. And that makes the crafting of an effective warning a far more complex task as I see it.

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