Warning labels on social media platforms can help protect the mental health of adolescents, according to the U.S. surgeon general.

Such labels — as seen on cigarette and alcohol products — would serve as a reminder to parents and adolescents that social media can cause harm, Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, said in a June17 op-ed in The New York Times.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy said.

The call to action comes a year after Murthy released a surgeon general advisory that called on technology companies, policymakers and parents to take urgent actions to minimize the harms of social media platforms.A teen reads a message on a cell phone

Teenagers in the U.S. spend an average of 4.6 hours a day on social media, according to a 2023 Gallup survey. Girls spend more time on social media than boys, with 55% of girls spending at least four hours a day on social media compared to 48% of boys. By age, 17-year-olds spend the most time on the platforms, averaging 5.8 hours a day.

Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day using social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found.

Despite the warnings, teenagers are reluctant to log off their screens. In a Pew Research Center survey, 54% of teenagers said it would be very or somewhat hard to give up social media. Three-quarters of respondents said they used YouTube every day and 58% used Tik Tok daily.

Murthy said a surgeon general warning label can prompt parents to monitor their children’s screen time and remind all users that social media has not been proven safe.

“Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior,” he said.

Among those who praised the call to action were the Anti-Defamation League, which said warning labels could help highlight the fact that hate and harassment is common on social media platforms. A recent survey by the organization found that 50% of teenagers experienced hate and harassment online.

“The surgeon general’s call for a warning on social media is right: These platforms often seem like drugs, designed to hook users, create a dependency, and alter behavior – often for the worse,” said ADL CEO and National Director, Jonathon Greenblatt, said in a news release.

Adding a surgeon general’s warning label on the platforms would require congressional action.


Photo by Oatawa, courtesy iStockphoto