Surgeon General Vivek Murthy suggests social media warning messages in the...

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy suggests social media warning messages in the style of tobacco labels. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has proposed what could be a sensible first step toward curbing the psychological harm to minors who spend an unhealthy amount of time on social media.

He suggests warning messages in the style of tobacco labels.

“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 said in a persuasive published essay. “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior.”

The advent of warning labels did not get everyone to immediately stop smoking, but it did seem to have an impact on the national consciousness over a long period that preceded anti-smoking policies that cumulatively helped save lives. In the current instance, we’re talking about preteens and adolescents who can benefit from warnings that reach their parents and them, too.

Murthy cannot act unilaterally, however. Congress should follow up on his proposal, but for now, that appears unlikely before the November election. That’s too bad, since one would think that both cultural conservatives and public-health-minded progressives would agree on the overall merits of the proposal and move ahead to protect our children without letting disagreements on other fronts get in the way.

Heavy social media use has been broadly linked in some studies to an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal ideation. Fortunately, state legislatures across America are passing laws of their own that lawmakers hope will help.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul is expected to soon sign legislation that would restrict the use of tech companies’ algorithms to keep kids engaged on their platforms. Social media companies would be required to get parental permission before they provide algorithmically curated feeds to those under 18 under the bill recently approved in the State Senate and Assembly. Hochul has inveighed against “addictive algorithms designed to draw the young people deeper and deeper into that darkness over and over.”

Other states have focused more on time limits and age restrictions for youths clicking online. But lobbying and lawsuits from such companies as Meta and TikTok have reportedly scaled back or narrowed crackdowns in such places as Utah and Arkansas.

Despite what industry advocates might say, public officials looking to address the problem of toxic social media are not calling for a “nanny state,” or collective punishment, or curbs on free speech. New technological trends can have unintended effects, and those who represent the public are supposed to meet common problems head-on.

Hopefully, separate state measures like New York's will form a critical mass that can prod the federal government to adopt more comprehensive policies. The changes needed to protect the well-being of kids would be best made nationally. Starting with Murthy’s suggested warning messages would help.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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