Doctor's orders

The surgeon general wants a warning label on social media for teens — but why stop there?

Vivek Murthy
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaks onstage at The Archewell Foundation Parents’ Summit: Mental Wellness in the Digital Age
(Image credit: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for Project Healthy Minds)

Vivek Murthy wants the government to stub out social media use by kids. In a New York Times op-ed, the surgeon general this week details the growing body of evidence linking TikTok, Instagram, and other apps to the mental health crisis among young people. There's the study that found adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media have double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms. Notably, the average daily use for a teenager is now about five hours. There's the survey in which nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies. And then there are the endless anecdotes from teens who don't know how to look away from apps designed to deliver a steady scroll of dopamine hits. These platforms are engineered to be addictive, so Murthy proposes slapping an official surgeon general's warning on apps — like those on cigarettes — to "regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe." 

As a worried father of two, I can only say let's do it. But why stop at warnings for kids when excessive social media use is also rotting adult brains? What about if every time Elon Musk hit post on his latest X tirade, he were to see a pop-up stating, "This message may contribute to partisan animosity and further alienate Tesla owners. Do you still want to share this thought with the world?" Or when a celebrity is about to broadcast a filter-treated beach selfie on Instagram, a banner slides across the screen cautioning, "Searching for affirmation from strangers online may only exacerbate your feelings of insecurity. Have you considered seeking the answer within?" Even passive users of social media such as myself could be targeted by such PSAs: "Your 1 a.m. doomscrolling on Reddit about impending climate apocalypse is hurting the planet. Sleep would use less power." Dr. Murthy, I'm ready for your tough medicine.

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Theunis Bates is a senior editor at The Week's print edition. He has previously worked for Time, Fast Company, AOL News and Playboy.