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Dubai: The threat social media poses to children requires urgent action, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, and demanded Congress to put a label on the apps as it does with cigarettes and alcohol.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy said in an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday.

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He said his vision of the warning includes language that would alert users to the potential mental health harms of the websites and apps, CNN and NBC reported.

“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.

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In 1965, after the previous year’s landmark report from Surgeon General Luther L. Terry that linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer and heart disease, Congress mandated unprecedented warning labels on packs of cigarettes, the first of which stated, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Labels on tobacco led to a steady decline in cigarette smoking in America over the past several decades, US reports said.

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

“Evidence from tobacco labels shows that surgeon general’s warnings can increase awareness and change behaviour,” Murthy said in the op-ed. But he acknowledged the limitations and said a label alone wouldn’t make social media safe.

Steps can be taken by Congress, social media companies, parents and others to mitigate the risks, ensure a safer experience online and protect children from possible harm, he wrote.

Risk of depression

Murthy pointed to several studies, including a 2019 American Medical Association study published in JAMA that showed teens who spend three hours a day on social media double their risk of depression.

Teens spend nearly five hours a day on social media apps, according to a Gallup poll.

“It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents,” Murthy said.

Did you know?
The American Psychological Association says teenagers spend nearly five hours every day on top platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
In a 2019 study, the association found the proportion of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47% from 2008 to 2017, when social media use among that age group soared.
A surgeon general’s public health advisory on social media’s mental health published last year cited research finding that among its potential harms are exposure to violent and sexual content and to bullying, harassment and body shaming.

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

Congress has long chastised social media companies, claiming they pose harm to children. CEOs of tech companies have been grilled routinely on Capitol Hill, most notably Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg — who publicly apologised to families whose children killed themselves because of online bullying and harassment. But Congress has taken little action to curb children’s social media usage.

Murthy argued that it’s time for Congress to get serious about curbing children’s use of social media.

“Not only have companies not demonstrated that their platforms are not safe for kids, but there’s growing evidence of harm,” Murthy said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show Monday.

Warning label could help parents

“That’s deeply concerning to me, not only as a surgeon general but also as a parent. A warning label could help parents understand these risks — many parents don’t know those risks exist.”

Murthy has warned about social media’s harm to children’s welfare for years. But Monday’s declaration of an emergency and his appeal to Congress represent his most urgent call to action on the issue so far.

In May 2023, Murthy issued an advisory that said there’s not enough evidence to determine whether social media is safe enough for children and adolescents’ mental health, saying social media use presents “a profound risk of harm” for kids.

A warning label, if Congress passes legislation requiring one, would be insufficient to fix the problem, Murthy acknowledged.

He suggested schools become phone-free environments for children, as should dinner time and other family events. And Murthy urged parents to restrict children’s use of social media until they graduate from middle school.