Future Tech

US Surgeon General wants cigarette-style health warning labels on social networks

Tan KW
Publish date: Tue, 18 Jun 2024, 07:19 AM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy today said official warning labels should be slapped on social media networks.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Dr Murthy warned that social media is a key factor in "the mental health crisis among young people." He proposed that a formal Surgeon General's warning label should be applied to all such platforms about how they are dangerous to kids who use them too much.

"Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms," Dr Murthy said. "The average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours. Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies."

Nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies

It's not a new position for the Surgeon General, who issued an advisory a year ago that didn't go quite as far as to ask for a warning label. Such a tactic would, in theory, raise awareness about the negative effects of social media, he explained.

Warning labels on cigarettes, Dr Murthy said, encouraged many people to quit smoking. That could also play out for social media, with repeated warnings encouraging parents to take a more active role in limiting the use of such technologies.

Implementing such a warning label can't be done at the snap of a finger. The Surgeon General would need approval from Congress, which may not be that hard since the legislative body at times has an appetite for regulating the internet ostensibly in the interest of child safety and privacy, or at least appearing to. Earlier this year, the Senate grilled social media bosses about child safety, which may have encouraged Dr Murthy to ask for warning labels.

On the other hand, not all law bills geared towards child safety are guaranteed to go through. The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) bill was introduced in 2022, and didn't proceed to a vote in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, perhaps partly due to significant backlash across the US.

A newer version proposed in 2023 was approved at the Senate committee level, and has now apparently gained over 60 backers in the Senate, the usual minimum to pass a bill. But no equivalent legislation has been introduced in the House yet.

Dr Murthy envisions this warning label being shown to parents and youngsters regularly, and that might be the trickier part. It's easy to slap a warning label on a box or bottle, but it's less straightforward on websites or apps, which is perhaps why the Surgeon General didn't share a particular method he would like to see.

The introduction of warning labels on social media is not the end goal for Dr Murthy, who said he would like to see further regulation. "Legislation from Congress should shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds," the Surgeon General said.

Some of these measures would include things like not collecting information from children and limiting features such as notifications and autoplay. Dr Murthy also says social media networks should have to share their internal research and usage data with public scientists, so that it can be scrutinized, and to be subject to independent audits.

"While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words," he said. "We need proof."

It's not clear if those more radical suggestions will make it into actual law. The big names in tech, such as Meta and TikTok, would almost certainly do everything they could to defeat an effort to implement that kind of legislation, and some civil rights groups aren't strangers to opposing internet safety laws that they perceive as being too heavy-handed. ®



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