The US Surgeon General’s Case For A Warning Label On Social Media

Credit: Xinmei Liu

The term ‘Social Media’ may give off a benign vibe, suggesting that it’s a friendly place where everyone is welcome to be themselves, yet reality has borne out that it is anything but. This is the reason why the US Surgeon General [Dr. Vivek H. Murthy] is pleading for a health warning label on social media platforms. Much like with warnings on tobacco products, it’s not expected that such a measure would make social media safe for children and adolescents, but would remind them and their parents about the risks of these platforms.

While this may sound dire for what is at its core about social interactions, there is a growing body of evidence to support the notion that social media can negatively impact mental health. A 2020 systematic review article in Cureus by [Fazida Karim] and colleagues found anxiety and depression to be the most notable negative psychological health outcomes. A 2023 editorial in BMC Psychology by [Ágnes Zsila] and [Marc Eric S. Reyes] concurs with this notion, while contrasting these cons of social media with the pros, such as giving individuals an online community where they feel that they belong.

Ultimately, it’s important to realize that social media isn’t the end-all, be-all of online social interactions. There are still many dedicated forums, IRC channels and newsgroups far away from the prying eyes and social pressure  of social media to act out a personality. Having more awareness of how social interactions affect oneself and/or one’s children is definitely essential, even if we’re unlikely to return to the ‘never give out your real name’ days of  the pre-2000s Internet.

66 thoughts on “The US Surgeon General’s Case For A Warning Label On Social Media

      1. Communism is when government, high on its belief on infalibility goes beyond putting up labels and tries to enforce its opinions on the population. Warning labels are not communism, highlighting a perceived risk to someone, however aware they already are, so they can make their own decision in possession of all the information (or opinions masquerading as info, in the case of many government announcements) is never a bad thing. Social media, on the other hand, in my opinion definitely is a bad thing. But watch out for what the commies might try afterwards. Warnings are fine, but government attempts to restrict, censor and implement age or identity verification walls are an intolerable infringement of individual choice.

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    1. Whats the difference between the cigarettes of our time and cigarettes of now? Beyond that they have had 17 years to optimalize their algorithms and groom the population to look at their phones for an average of 7 hours a day…

    2. Both are just internet, massive non-hierarchical (or stealth hierarchical) networks that clog up your dunbar rings and DDOS your social faculties with far more bandwidth than your hardware ever adapted to handle in the wild.

      A friggin cigarette pack warning is way too little too late, decades too late. And won’t do anything. Typical of most massively toxic environmental pollutants that we manage to track down

  1. As someone whom is rather technical (as I think most of us are here)– It is hard, at times, to remember that there are vast numbers of people that are not technical at all– For that matter, perhaps even (technically) socially savvy at all (i.e. it is not like IRL, unless your famous, you can inadvertently experience viral or exponential effects, for better or much worse).

    I am not really sure a warning would do any good at all– But I am kind of disgusted how a parent might even toss a 3 year old down with their tablet or phone (*themselves* having no idea how it functions in the first place), just because it is easier.

    So, at least, I’ll take this ‘warning’ as a reflection of that… Not saying it is a great solution, but at least it is an admission that there is a problem here.

    1. So who would you trust to ‘warning’ label information? Zuckerberg? The Ministry of Truth? Do you see the real issue? Remember when you could NOT talk against the ‘science’, that is now getting completely exposed?

      1. “when you could NOT talk against the ‘science’, that is now getting completely exposed?”

        I’m sorry, but wha ? I mean there are endless examples of kids getting hurt by social media– That is neither in doubt nor question– *Nor* is this a call to ban the whole thing. I recognize this is at best a feeble attempt, but what is one to do, simply ‘say nothing’ ?

        I mean maybe the parents are just that stupid– So we’re just supposed to let the kids ‘sink or swim’ ?

          1. Okay, then exactly to your crude point then– Since nothing is being banned, a mere ‘warning’ is also just ‘not your problem’, nor is the government here ‘making it your problem’– Just ignore it.

            I mean I unfortunately am still a smoker, rather than a vaper, despite all the evidence otherwise, but otherwise we did seem to establish a pretty good program in this country to bring ‘obvious death’ down.

            I mean I came of age when Columbine was ‘exceptional’– not, now, common. It is extremely disheartening.

            And where the kids today are more distorted, it doesn’t also mean they aren’t getting smarter than I am– So, @Anonymous, if one of them just decided to ‘swat you’– Or show up at your doorstep with a real AR-15, and a point to prove, I am assuming you’d be just fine with that.

            I do not wish a ‘nanny state’, but young people are impressionable, that has never changed. That is why you can become a solider before you can drink or smoke, young, your life is mailable and basically worthless to the cogs.

          2. ” I unfortunately am still a smoker, rather than a vaper”
            Don’t worry. There is a high chance that scientific evidence in 10 years will show that vaping is also bad (or even worse than smoking). We need time to see how many evidence was collected on demand.

            About the article:
            We spend at least 15 years on rising awareness about social media and getting more and more evidence how harmful they are and what we end up with is even larger userbase, more users, more portals and higher addiction.
            There are only two options left:
            1) create other addiction that will fulfill the void left by social media. This is like crushing a wall with your head just to get to next jails cell.
            2) a big scale catastrophe that would either set the priorities back or make social media dangerous place to be. After that we move to point 1.

            No warning will help. We put warnings on cigarette packs long time ago and people still smoke. How we reduce smoking? We introduce vaping.

        1. Maybe parents should be parents and the Gov should be the Gov and the two should not overlap….. You know how it was intended.

          A warning is silly, pointless and does nothing.

          1. Maybe if parents were actually being parents instead of letting tablets, smartphones etc. parent for them then we’d not find ourselves in the situation where they needed warning that social media can be a problem?

            Aside from that, take a look at the word ‘government’, it’s right there in the word, “govern”, they’re doing exactly what they’re meant to be doing, as it was intended.

          2. And platforms will do all they can to prevent parents from realizing how fucked up they are in everything they publish. I’m glad I can read Red Dye #6 and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, why can’t I read “Peer to peer marketing, Advergames, ads as Educational Content”

            It’s not limiting speech, it’s making a company that doesn’t share your values come right out and say the exact kind of garbage they’re putting in the mix.

            My kids are different. I won’t let them even sell girl scout cookies, and I’m kind of a freak about it and I drive my family nuts on lots of things like this, but I’m paying attention as best I can. And admittedly missing stuff. A nutrition label at least lets the average parent have a little data to make that informed decision “that’s right for their family’s values”

            Otherwise Zuck will just keep trying us it’s all roses and bad things only happen because of bad parents. If everything is fine, let them put it in writing, and get sued when people start finding too much rat meat where they said there wouldn’t be any.

    2. There’s definitely a problem with social media and I don’t know what the solution is, but allowing Zuckerberg, Musk et al to run free, harvesting data, manipulating, sowing division and hate via algorithmically generated outrage (outrage seen in this very comment section) for profit is most definitely not the way to a better world.

      The aside is that people are lazy and easily trapped into the never ending cycle of microdosing dopamine from social media ‘likes’ or outrage and that sells advertising space, worse, it sells influence to those who want it (see Cambridge Analytica and many, many others which haven’t hit the headlines), so yeah, some kind of warning would be a start.

      Personally, I’ve never used Facebook for longer than a couple of weeks, I went cold turkey and deleted all my twitter accounts (I had 4 active ones and several other automated or defunct ones) when Elon Musk bought it because I (correctly) predicted its future enshittification, I pretty quickly noticed my general mood, stress and feeling of anger towards others has been drastically reduced.

      1. “sowing division and hate” “Cambridge Analytica” buddy you don’t have any idea how deep the problem is if you’re spouting those old lukewarm recycled opinions. The division and hate were already naturally-occurring, they don’t need to stoke it. These things are fundamental to the mere form of a hyper-connected network several orders of magnitude bigger than a Dunbar ring.

    3. Not technical? Forget that, as people whose brains and friendships developed before online, we take for granted that the majority of people who grew up in this stunted rat utopia we built for them are non-social. No wonder a full quarter of young people report not only having no sex for a year or more, but also not having even one single close friend. Obviously these things are deeply connected, I hope people resist the urge to delude themselves.

  2. Social media is utter junk anyway, full stop, but… do not under any circumstances tolerate any attempts to put “age verification” walls around it. That way leads to all internet activity being subjected to governmental ID verification, and therefore governmental permission. It is NOT for the government to decide who can look at websites and who can’t. I call out to all those in the hacker community who specialise in website security: please oh please find ways to bypass any attempts at age verification walls, find, particularly, ways to bypass them which are impossible to patch against, and then share with the rest of the world how to bypass them. Speaking as a low level hardware tinkerer, not even a proper “hacker”, which I think also goes for most people on this site, I beg you who know about web hacking to prepare circumvention methods to stop the internet being locked behind ID verification portals.

    1. Oh sweet summer child, you still believe your Internet use isn’t monitored and logged by your ISP, the various three letter agencies and all in between every which way already?

      1. “Oh sweet summer child”
        Please take my advice and immediately remove this smug, embarassing redditism from your vocabulary, it’s possibly the most ridiculous thing you can possibly say.

        1. Age verification is a pretty illegitimate idea anyway, even if it did work. Remember, there’s plenty of “underage” people who are in reality mature enough to see/interact with content, and plenty of older folks who aren’t mature enough. A login wall requiring one to complete a few basic calculus tasks and recall some historical knowledge, like when magna carta or the first amendment were written and what each said, or literary knowledge “where was the clock striking 13”, would make far more sense than the one-size-fits-all bureaucracy of governmentally approved ID checking. In the end, it is down to parents to educate their children and make them mature enough (competent parents wouldn’t need to hear a surgeon general’s warning, they know it already) before the child goes on social media, it is not acceptable for the government to decide to act as daddy (or rather a certain larger all seeing sibling headquartered on airstrip one) over everyone simply because some parents can’t keep their own house in order.

          1. > A login wall requiring one to complete a few basic calculus tasks and recall some historical knowledge, like when magna carta or the first amendment were written and what each said, or literary knowledge “where was the clock striking 13”, would make far more sense than the one-size-fits-all bureaucracy of governmentally approved ID checking.

            And now you are banning english-speaking, but non-US based folks. I vaguely remember the century (without google or wikipedia) when Magna Carta was signed, or what is in there. But even then – you are 3 minutes away from the answer.
            Just admit – age verification doesn’t work. At all. “if you are old enough to know how to bypass it – you are old enough”.

      1. The reality is any attempt at age verification becomes a digital ID system, where undesirables (anyone who opposes the government line on anything) can be locked out by the government making an “accidental” error and being unable to verify their IDs. Do you want a social credit scoring system? Government interference with the internet is far too great already, but outside of certain dictatorships which run their own national social media platforms (which double as payment gateways), you don’t have to gain governmental permission (that is what having a governmental ID checked in practice constitutes) to view, or make throw-away comments on, websites. I just wish the “hackers” of today, that is web hackers as opposed to the hardware tinkerer and developer kind that describes us here on “hack”aday, would stop taking jobs for governments and megacorporations which want total domination over every aspect of life, and instead go back to their roots, as per the Barlow Internet Declaration of Independence, and form a nucleus of resistance and the dystopia we are being marched towards.

      2. Just read this:
        Then think whether you want bureaucrats to have yet another domain in which to mess things up. remember, if they try identity verification for social media, and get away with it, they’ll be trying it for everything else next. The state has an anti-midas touch, it turns things in to sewage, although in the specfic case of social media it would be turning plain sewage in to even worse sewage.

    1. This is certainly not a government-only issue… commercial entities are all in on controlling other people without any claim of having credentials or expertise to do so.

      1. The public/private dichotomy is mostly illusory, after all. For instance, in any democracy the media apparatus will by its very nature become a much more important body of governance than any official branch of the state. It almost has to, even if it tries not to.

  3. While I’m not necessarily opposed to a “warning label”, I highly doubt it would serve any practical purpose or provide useful information. It would basically say “this company does not have your best interests in mind”, which, well… NO SHIT. If the ” warning label” was closer to a set of nutrition facts outlining provisions in the privacy policy, that could actually be usefl.

  4. Warning labels on social media? What’s next? Warning that knives can cut? Water can cause drowning?

    Social media is a good thing because it keeps all the people who need such warning busy (and in the articles’ own words, depressed). I certainly wouldn’t want these kind of people running around doing damage. Sorry if that sounds harsh (it is!) but there are many people who are unfit for any responsibility (social, occupational and any other kind of). Is it really so bad that they themselves choose to self segregate in pockets of internet among their own kind?

    I learned a long, long time ago that gullibility is associated with high social media use.

    /s /s

    1. gotta love new car manuals that say ‘don’t drink contents of battery’……….I am 1000% for survival of the fittest. People with the almost the entire history of human knowledge in their pocket, and dumber than ever. If there was just someone to tell everyone what and how to think…………

      1. Someone telling everyone what to think can be guaranteed to be the very stupidest person going. People alone can be stupid, crowds are very often stupid, people (individually or as groups) given a position of too much power over others always end up being stupid. Better to let people make their own decisions, and accept some being utterly wrong, than have Sir Humphrey Appleby making everyone make the wrong decision together.

  5. I highly recommend the book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention” by Johann Hari, where this and more is discussed. He argues that the ultimate problem is the business model of these companies which strongly incentivizes them to work against the users, because it’s all financed by advertisement. So you want to keep the users on the site for as long as possible and to know as much as possible about them in order to serve them more and better ads that are more effective, i.e. manipulate you more effectively.

    This leads to all kinds of negative effects for society as a whole. Not just depression and anxiety, but also more stress and polarization (outrage is very effective at keeping you engaged…), loss of concentration and productivity, which in turn leads to all kinds of societal problems.

    Imagine Facebook and Co. working for us instead of against us, using all their resources to encourage more meaningful social interactions etc. It wouldn’t even be that hard, even simple things would make it much better, like a feature you could enable when you have no plans yet for the evening/weekend/… and it would tell you “here are five of your friends that are nearby also would like to meet up”.

    The companies won’t change by themselves though. This is something we have to force them to, just as we had to force them to sane working hours, salaries etc.

    1. People know all of that. All was proven by scientific research and proved by internal leaks. People got so mad they had to put more posts. They just sit in a burning house thinking “at least it’s warm because it’s chilly outside”.

  6. How about starting here:

    “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.” – Marcia Angell (2009)

    “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.” – Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet (2015)

    “Journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry.” – Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet (2004)

    Why Most Published Research Findings Are False
    John P. A. Ioannidis – 2005

    There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field…Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias. In this essay, I discuss the implications of these problems for the conduct and interpretation of research.

    MAY 21, 2021
    A new replication crisis: Research that is less likely to be true is cited more

    Papers in leading psychology, economic and science journals that fail to replicate and therefore are less likely to be true are often the most cited papers in academic research, according to a new study by the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management.

    In psychology, only 39 percent of the 100 experiments successfully replicated. In economics, 61 percent of the 18 studies replicated as did 62 percent of the 21 studies published in Nature/Science.

    Fake (aka “fraudulent”) scientific papers are alarmingly common
    But new tools show promise in tackling growing symptom of academia’s “publish or perish” culture
    9 May 2023

    Fake Publications in Biomedical Science: Red-flagging Method Indicates Mass Production
    8 May 2023

    Results: The classification rules using two (three) indicators had sensitivities of 86% (90%) and false alarm rates of 44% (37%). From 2010 to 2020 the RFP rate increased from 16% to 28%. Given the 1.3 million biomedical Scimago-listed publications in 2020, we estimate the scope of >300,000 RFPs annually. Countries with the highest RFP proportion are Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, and India (39%-48%), with China, in absolute terms, as the largest contributor of all RFPs (55%).

    Research Fraud: Is Everything We Think We Know About Alzheimer’s Disease Wrong?
    AUGUST 15, 2022

    Academy for Science and Freedom presents: The Broken Science Initiative

    How Deep Runs The Corruption?
    SEP 08, 2023


    For the past several years, my friends in public health and science have expressed astonishment and professional disorientation at the behavior and messaging of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The scientific journals are part of this.

    They simply couldn’t believe the brazen manipulation of science for political purposes. They couldn’t believe that so many people within these agencies and journals went along with it for reasons of career protection. They’ve been appalled that science and public health have been deployed in this way.

    They worry about the future with this level of corruption. And they’ve been quite passionate in decrying it, while paying a professional price for not going along.

    Implicit in this reaction is a history in which they implicitly trusted these institutions, their data, their reporting, and their sincerity with regard to public health. They presumed that these agencies weren’t capable of manipulating science for political reasons. They certainly would never have believed that they would preside over the worst public health calamity of our lifetime.

    When they set out to decry this, correct the error, and alert the public to the truth, it wasn’t because they hated the NIH and the CDC. Indeed, it was the opposite. They wanted them to be good. They wanted their integrity restored. They wanted to trust again.

    In other words, what motivated them is piety in their professions and the agencies that preside over them. In this, the real haters get it all wrong. My friends aren’t disinformation spreaders, they’re spreaders of facts in the interest of public well-being. They believed strongly that the system isn’t broken fundamentally and could be improved.

    They decided that they didn’t want to practice their craft in an environment of lies. They wanted restoration of truth.

    1. And this applies to social media… how? Even if you are skeptical on medical research it is a long walk to think that social media is healthy for children.

      Medical journals, like all scientific journals, are an exercise in free (as in freedom) market exchange of information. Credible journals are hard to get published in whereas the least credible journals are a pay-to-play publishing scheme- this is no great secret. Combine the availability of low-rent journals with the fact that that researchers jobs are publish-or-perish, and the conclusion is a ton of junk science gets published. Yes, there is a bias towards studies that show positive results and, yes, big pharma has their own agenda and props up studies in an attempt to make more money. Again, this is not unique to medicine or some grand conspiracy, mostly it is market forces doing their thing. Junk science needs to reference junk science, and you end up with a feedback loop that inflates the importance of itself. Search for the ‘chocolate makes you lose weight’ research and the amount of media attention it received.

      All the sciences ends up with such a ‘dichotomy’ between genuine and junk research from these forces: medical sciences, social sciences, environmental sciences, etc. There are people out there doing good research and those publishing junk for their own personal interests or the interests of those who pay them.

      1. Unfortunately, in 2020 and 2021 the junk largely came from the official sources getting government funding. Once people started to see that, and to see the efforts to suppress rational alternatives like the great barrington declaration or the words of Karol Sikora and Carl Heneghan, they lost trust in officialdom. Who can blame them, would you trust anything the government said on any matter when it had misled you so blatantly for over 2 years? Maybe, if government wants people to trust it with anything again, it should stop sticking its nose it to things that don’t concern it, and stop offering its opinions (which it claims to be facts) on every topic under the sun (the majority of which are well beyond its competence).

      2. Health warnings are based on medical research, which is usually fraudulent. As a species we do not have the intelligence or competence to effectively regulate each others’ psychology without drowning in unintended consequences. We should quit while we’re ahead.

  7. ‘K

    Like everyone I am imagining this on FaceBook, X-Twit and all the usual suspects.

    But isn’t this Social Media too? Right here in the comments section of HaD? Do we need such a notice here? I hope not. I can imagine some parents, the type who always over-react to such warnings quashing what would have been a future tech hobbyist.

    But who is going to decide which media gets it and how?

    1. Who cares, it will basically just be another GDPR warning pop-up. Absolutely annoying, universally ignored, totally ineffective. Will fade into the background soon enough, people will program them into their adblockers or will mentally screen them out, a specific paragraph of legalese failing to even register as language anymore as they search for the little x button

    1. Lets be honest, the author is likely right in saying social media should probably carry a health warning, very sickening. What it must NOT do though is have ID (sometimes under the guise of age) verification around it, that way lies a world in which governments can decide not to approve the IDs of dissidents and thereby cut them off entirely from the internet (the internet is ofcourse much wider than social media, but if the ID disease takes hold there it will spread everywhere else too). If anyone out there with the right sort of hacking talents still appreciates the Barlow declaration of internet independence, then I hope they choose to work on developing methods to undermine any attempts at age/ID verification walls. For those methods to provide effective undermining they’ll also need to be the sort of thing where a patch cannot be developed to block the bypass. Sadly most of the people with those talents have let themselves be tricked, and work for Big Tech and Big Gov, like the workers who put up castles for the normans, in to assisting in the building of a cage being constructed around them. In the end, it is up to parents to teach their children properly, not to government to be a nanny over everyone.

      1. >Lets be honest, the author is likely right in saying social media should probably carry a health warning, very sickening.
        No, I’m not going to concede that point. Health warnings imply you trust the people issuing the warnings to be competent at their job. I do not.

    1. I’d rather they be taught that by their parents, and the ones whose parents fail at that task should suffer the consequences (economic or otherwise). It’ll sort itself out in a few generations.

  8. Warning labels are great, and not just from the government. There are some things that just have to be deleted, but I wish quite a few others would come with warning labels added by the operators of a given platform. And click-throughs before it’s shown, if needed. That way you let people say their bit, but not without giving the owners the chance to make their position known first on their own platform. E.G. on a video site, a warning could be “We consider the hydrogen generator in this video to be somewhat dangerous, though not badly made, and it’s not going to improve your mileage so don’t get scammed”.

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