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Proposed social media warning labels find support among doctors, advocates

Surgeon General calls for warning labels on social media
Surgeon General calls for warning labels on social media 04:33

SAN FRANCISCO - A proposal by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to place warning labels on social media platforms is finding support among doctors and advocates who are concerned that the sites contribute to mental health issues among teens.

Murthy called for the warnings in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Monday. The push would be similar to the warnings printed on cigarette packages, which Murthy noted have shown to "increase awareness and change behavior." 

However, adding warning labels to social media platforms would require Congress to pass legislation, he noted. 

Dr. Lynette Hsu is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Silicon Valley. She said warnings could be helpful in bringing attention to the risks of social media use that many may not be aware of.

"In the last decade for sure, we're seeing a rise in mental health concerns in young people. While we may not be able to pull an absolute, direct correlation between social media and those mental health concerns, we are seeing some pretty clear indications that excessive social media use can lead to mental health concerns, like worsening anxiety and depression," Hsu told CBS News Bay Area. "Our hope with warning labels are that they bring attention. Bringing attention to something gives us an opportunity to intervene."

Jason Frost, the co-founder of Wired Human, supports Dr. Murthy's push to place warning labels on social media platforms.

"Putting that label on social media is accountability and saying, 'No, these are actually human beings that you are destroying lives. You are burying children in the ground.' People need to be made aware by our government and at a societal level of those dangers," Frost said. "It's a lot like polluted water, if you think about a river getting polluted. You can either stop the pollution to solve the problem, or there's ways you can teach and educate on how to get healthy drinking water. So we have to look at it from that angle that youth is born into the digital age. Technology isn't going anywhere."

Kayla Bethea, 18, said she first started using social media when she was 12 years old. She didn't realize how harmful social media could be to her health until 2020.

"During quarantine and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I got a lot of posts from TikTok and Instagram. It's very negative. It's about my race being inferior to others and just that we aren't as educated as other races. That really impacted my mental health," Bethea said. "It's scary because I had no one to guide me. My parents had no idea how to use social media and how it works, really. So I feel like our generation is the first to experience it and we kind of experienced it by ourselves. As I got into social media, i started to see the negative impacts of social media, both mentally and, I guess, physically."

Dr. Hsu said lowering social media use could improve the mental health of both adolescents and adults.

"If we spend too much time on social media, it puts us at risk for distorting our sleep patterns, which is really impactful to us as adults - for our mental health and cognitive abilities," Hsu said. "I think for all of us as human beings, we learn a certain way. So when you are on social media and interacting with the algorithms that are perhaps skewing the information you receive, it can give you a distorted view of problems in the world, or things like anxiety and depression. For us as adults as well, that can make us vulnerable."

Bethea is a youth coalition core leader with Wired Human, sharing her story and advocating for better protections against social media harm. She is in favor of a warning label being added to social media platforms and apps.

"That similar analogy between cigarettes and social media is very fair. It's very much based in the real-world experience of what we're all witnessing and observing, and what our youth is giving us feedback for," Frost said. "We haven't hit the tipping point. I feel like what's really going on is when youth went online, they were seen as 1's and 0's. Part of a code, part of an algorithmic function in a world that nobody fully understood. They lost a part of their humanity in that. And so people stopped looking at youth online as youth in the real world."

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