U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy delivers remarks during a news conference at the White House in Washington in 2021 (OSV News photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters).

In mid-June, one year after releasing a report about the threats posed by social-media platforms to young people’s mental health, U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy issued another advisory, this time calling for the application of a warning label stating that “social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.” Such a label, which would require congressional authorization, is not intended to be a cure-all: Murthy has also called for legislation to stop tech companies from collecting sensitive information, exposing young people to violent and sexual content, and using addictive features—like autoplay and infinite scroll—that “prey on developing brains.” In addition to such laws, which enjoy bipartisan support, Murthy recommends the establishment of  “healthy digital environments” like phone-free zones in schools and moderate social-media use at home.

There is mounting evidence—much of it cited by Murthy—linking social media to the youth mental-health crisis. So it is odd that many of the surgeon general’s modest proposals have provoked strong critical reactions not only from the usual suspects in Silicon Valley but also from academic researchers like UC Irvine’s Candice Odgers and free-speech advocates like Nico Perrino, executive vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

It’s true that the details of the surgeon general’s warning label—visual salience, frequency, exact phrasing, etc.—have not yet been determined. And yes, social media has benefits for some young users, especially those belonging to marginalized groups, for whom the online communities can serve as a lifeline and vehicle of self-expression. But when the country’s young people spend an average of almost five hours a day on social media, and half of them claim that using the platforms “makes them feel worse about their bodies,” while 75 percent say they wish social-media companies would do more to shield them from cyberbullying and online harassment, it is no longer possible to dismiss their concerns as a “moral panic.”

There is mounting evidence—much of it cited by Murthy—linking social media to the youth mental-health crisis.

The reality is that warning labels often work. They really can help change broad social behaviors, as they have with smoking. Facile arguments against Murthy’s proposals serve just one interest: Big Tech, which has every reason to continue resisting any attempt to make its products safer, less addictive, and therefore less profitable. In the wake of revelations by whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against Meta by attorneys general from almost every state, accusing the company of knowingly ensnaring teenage users on Facebook and Instagram while deceiving the public about their safety. If nothing nefarious is going on, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims, Meta could heed requests from Murthy and others to share its internal data and reports on the health effects of Meta products with scientists, researchers, and independent investigators. That Meta flatly refuses to do so is telling.

The expanding crop of state bans on cell phones in schools and on entire social-media platforms like TikTok may not survive the many legal challenges that tech companies are already mounting. And it is unlikely that young people—or their parents, for that matter—can be persuaded to abandon social media entirely. But we don’t need to wait for more evidence of the harms done by social-media platforms to many millions of young people before we adopt common-sense warnings and limits. We cannot afford to sacrifice an entire generation to the heedless megalomania of half a dozen tech tycoons.

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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