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Would a warning on social media work to improve children’s mental health?

While experts are in favor of protecting children from the harms of social media, some question if a warning would really work.
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3 min read

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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is calling for a warning label to be added to social media platforms in an effort to protect children’s mental health.

While advocates and experts have come out in favor of the idea, they also remain skeptical that a warning would work well enough to reduce the harms of the platforms.

In a New York Times opinion piece published June 17, Murthy wrote that social media is an “important contributor” to the mental health crisis among young people, who spend more than “three hours a day on social media [and] face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms.”

“A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe,” Murthy wrote.

Nicole Hockley, co-founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise, an organization working to stop gun violence against children, agreed that a social media warning has potential to help kids.

“Kids are not just little adults. Young people are biologically more vulnerable to social media influencers and advertising, and more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior,” Hockley said in a statement. “We must protect children from harm—physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

David Bickham, research director in the nonprofit Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Healthcare Brew he is “very supportive of the surgeon general,” but also said that creating a warning that would actually work isn’t so simple.

Part of the challenge, Bickham said, is that children can have both positive and negative experiences with digital platforms.

Murthy, writing in the Times, compared social media to tobacco, referring to one study indicating that the warning labels on tobacco products have led to positive changes in smokers’ behavior.

But Bickham said that while tobacco only presents harms for children, social media can bring positives to children’s lives as well.

It’s a “complex situation” Bickham said, citing his lab’s 2022 research that 46% of adolescents ages 13–17 reported social media makes them feel worse about their bodies, but 50% of the kids also say social media makes their friendships “a little bit” or “a lot” better.

“Many kids just use it as an extension for interacting with their friends, and those are pretty positive interactions when you’re developing a relationship and maintaining a relationship—and it’s pretty fun,” he said.

Another challenge, he said, is that social media itself is hard to define and companies may try to evade any set definition.

“How do you come up with that specific kind of definition of what will get the label?” he said. “That was not a problem for cigarettes.”

In addition to warning labels, Murthy called for legislation to make social media safer for young people, including laws to protect them from online harassment, limit sexual content, and prevent sensitive data collection. The surgeon general also said companies should be “required to share all of their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public.”

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.