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U.S. surgeon general calls for tobacco-style warning labels for social media


The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency, and social media has emerged as an important contributor. Those are the words of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a New York Times opinion piece, calling on Congress to require a surgeon general's warning on social media. Dr. Murthy goes on to point out that children and adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media have double the risk of mental health problems - problems like depression and anxiety. On average, teens spend nearly five hours a day on social media. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy joins me now, and I want to note our conversation will contain a reference to suicide. Dr. Murthy, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

VIVEK MURTHY: Thanks so much, Mary Louise. Good to be with you again.

KELLY: Now, we know Congress has tried to address this. They have called social media executives in to testify. They have called for changes to algorithms. However, here we are. Why is an official surgeon general warning a solution?

MURTHY: The surgeon general's warning is part of a broader set of solutions. This is a label that we have used in the past for tobacco products and for alcohol products as well. And the data we have from that experience, particularly from tobacco labels, shows us that these can actually be effective in increasing awareness and in changing behavior.

But they need to be coupled with real changes to the platforms themselves. Right now, young people are being exposed to serious harms online and to features that would seek to manipulate their developing brains into excessive use, which may be part of the reason we're seeing adolescents spending, on average, nearly five hours a day on social media.

KELLY: This is features that make it almost impossible to look away, like the infinite scroll features and auto play, where it just keeps pumping at you.

MURTHY: That's right. And if you think about that - adults are familiar with these too - but there's something unique about the adolescent brain. It's a very sensitive stage of brain development - adolescence. And so when you put that vulnerable brain in the setting of all of these features that would seek to bring them back and keep them on the platform, it is very hard for a young person to pull themselves away. Imagine pitting a young person - an adolescent, a teenager - against the best product engineers in the world who are using the most cutting-edge brain science to figure out how to maximize the time you spend on a platform. That is the definition of an unfair fight, and it's what our kids are up against today.

KELLY: One other piece of the complexity of this must be that there are upsides to social media, right? I mean, you and I know them as an adult - in a way that things that past warnings have been attached to don't have. Like, there's no upside to not wearing a seat belt. There's no upside, from a health point of view, to smoking. There are upsides to the use of social media in the way that they connect people. How do you think about that when it comes to the youngest Americans who you're trying to protect?

MURTHY: So last year, when I issued my advisory on social media and youth mental health, I laid out that there were a mix of benefits and harms with social media. It's true that some kids find that with social media, they can reconnect with old friends. They can find a community of people with shared experience.

But I think about the moms and dads and the young people that I've met across the road who have talked about these harms. I think about Laurie (ph), who I wrote about in today's op-ed, who spoke about her daughter who was mercilessly bullied on social media and ultimately who took her own life. And her mother was one of those moms who did everything you could think of. She looked at her daughter's phone every day. She told her what platforms she could not be on. And yet she found out afterward that her daughter had multiple accounts that she didn't even know about because she knew how to hide them.

I think about the young people themselves who are telling me that they feel worse about themselves when they use social media. They often feel worse about their friendships, but they also can't get off of the platforms because they're designed to keep them on. I think about all of that, and these are cries for help. And we've got to respond, you know, as a country. We have allowed this to go on for nearly 20 years. The unfettered spread of social media with very little check, with very little accountability. And we're paying for the price of that right now, but it doesn't have to remain this way.

The warning label I'm calling for today would help make sure that parents know what we know, as public health and medical professionals, which is that there really is an association here between social media use and mental health harms for adolescents.

KELLY: If I may make this personal, your own children are 6 and 7 years old, is that right?

MURTHY: Yes. They're 6 and 7.

KELLY: When are you going to let them use social media?

MURTHY: So my wife and I have talked about this, and we have said that we're not going to let them use social media until at least after middle school. And we will reassess in middle school based on a few things. One, their maturity. Two, what the data says at that time around safety. And third, whether or not there are safety standards that have been put in place and actually enforced.

But my wife and I also know that this is not going to be easy for us to do on our own. So literally right now, we are in the process of engaging with other parents in our school and trying to arrange some gatherings and meetings where we can collectively talk about this common struggle that we have. And we realize that if we can build a pact with one another as parents to take some of these measures, to delay use, to create tech-free zones, that we have a much better chance of implementing these together than we do struggling alone.

KELLY: Vivek Murthy is the U.S. surgeon general. We've been talking to him about his call to add surgeon general warning labels to social media. Thanks so much.

MURTHY: Thanks so much. It's good to be with you today.

KELLY: And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, just those three digits - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.