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America’s Top Doctor on Why He Wants Warning Labels on Social Media

America’s Top Doctor on Why He Wants Warning Labels on Social Media

Update: 2024-06-2112
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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in an interview with The Daily, discusses the rising mental health crisis among teens, highlighting the potential harms of social media. He shares personal experiences and anecdotes from his time as Surgeon General, illustrating the impact of social media on young people's mental well-being. Murthy emphasizes the need for action, citing the lack of evidence for social media's safety and the growing evidence of harm. He proposes a warning label, similar to those on cigarette packages, to raise awareness about the risks associated with social media use. Murthy acknowledges the benefits of social media for some, particularly marginalized groups, but argues that the potential harms outweigh the benefits. He calls for a collective effort from parents, tech companies, and lawmakers to address the issue, emphasizing the need for tech-free zones and a re-engineering of the relationship between young people and technology. Murthy draws parallels between the current situation and past moral panics surrounding new media, but argues that social media's pervasiveness and impact on childhood are unique. He emphasizes the importance of building spaces for in-person interaction and communication, and expresses hope that a warning label, combined with other measures, can help mitigate the harms of social media.

Outlines

00:00:00
Introduction

This Chapter introduces the topic of the podcast, which is the growing mental health crisis among teens and the potential harms of social media. It also introduces the guest, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and the host, Sabrina Tavernici.

00:01:39
The Growing Mental Health Crisis

This Chapter delves into the origins of the youth mental health crisis, with Murthy sharing his observations from his time as Surgeon General. He describes the stories he heard from parents and young people about the impact of social media on their mental health, including instances of bullying, harassment, and even suicide. Murthy emphasizes the need for further research to understand the relationship between social media use and mental health harms.

00:09:03
The Surgeon General's Warning

This Chapter focuses on the warning advisory issued by Murthy last year, which called for action from parents, tech companies, and lawmakers to protect young people from the harms of social media. Murthy argues that the burden of managing these harms should not solely fall on parents and children, and that tech companies have a responsibility to make their platforms safer. He outlines his hopes for the impact of the advisory, including increased awareness, policy changes, and a sense of shared responsibility.

00:11:33
The Proposed Warning Label

This Chapter details Murthy's proposed solution to the problem: a warning label similar to those on cigarette packages. He explains how the warning label would work in practice, highlighting the importance of scientific research to determine its effectiveness. Murthy acknowledges the potential benefits of social media for some groups, but emphasizes the need to address the significant risks associated with its use.

00:17:53
Addressing the Moral Panic

This Chapter addresses the criticism that the current concern about social media is simply another moral panic, similar to those surrounding television and video games. Murthy argues that social media's pervasiveness and impact on childhood are unique, and that the potential harms are significant enough to warrant action. He emphasizes the importance of protecting children from the negative aspects of social media while allowing them to reap its benefits.

Keywords

Social Media
Social media refers to online platforms that allow users to create and share content, connect with others, and build communities. These platforms have become ubiquitous in modern society, with significant impacts on communication, culture, and social interaction. Examples include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Social media has been linked to both positive and negative outcomes, including increased social connection, access to information, and opportunities for self-expression, as well as concerns about privacy, cyberbullying, and mental health.

Mental Health
Mental health encompasses a person's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It influences how we think, feel, and behave. Good mental health is essential for overall well-being and allows individuals to cope with life's challenges, build healthy relationships, and contribute to their communities. Mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, can significantly impact an individual's life and require professional treatment.

Surgeon General
The Surgeon General of the United States is the nation's top doctor and the head of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The Surgeon General provides leadership and expertise on public health issues, including disease prevention, health promotion, and health education. They are responsible for issuing reports and advisories on important health concerns, such as the Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health in 1964, which highlighted the dangers of smoking and led to significant public health changes.

Warning Label
A warning label is a notice attached to a product or packaging that alerts consumers to potential risks or hazards associated with its use. Warning labels are often required by law or regulations to ensure consumer safety and provide information about potential dangers. Examples include warning labels on cigarette packages, alcohol bottles, and household cleaning products. Warning labels can be effective in raising awareness, changing behavior, and reducing the incidence of harm.

Tech-Free Zones
Tech-free zones are designated areas or periods of time where the use of electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, is restricted or prohibited. These zones are often implemented in schools, workplaces, and public spaces to promote focus, productivity, and face-to-face interaction. Tech-free zones can help individuals disconnect from technology, reduce distractions, and engage in more meaningful activities.

Moral Panic
Moral panic refers to a widespread fear or anxiety about a perceived threat to social order or values. These panics are often fueled by media attention and public outcry, and can lead to social and political changes. Examples of moral panics include the fear of witchcraft in the Middle Ages, the fear of rock and roll music in the 1950s, and the fear of video games in the 1980s. Moral panics are often characterized by exaggeration, misinformation, and scapegoating.

Adolescence
Adolescence is a period of transition between childhood and adulthood, typically spanning from ages 10 to 19. It is a time of significant physical, cognitive, and social development. Adolescents experience rapid growth spurts, hormonal changes, and the development of abstract thinking skills. They also navigate complex social relationships, explore their identity, and develop a sense of independence.

Impulse Control
Impulse control refers to the ability to resist or delay an urge or temptation. It is an important aspect of self-regulation and involves the ability to think before acting, weigh consequences, and make deliberate choices. Impulse control develops gradually throughout childhood and adolescence, and can be influenced by factors such as genetics, environment, and brain development.

Social Comparison
Social comparison is the tendency to evaluate oneself in relation to others. It is a natural human process that can be both beneficial and harmful. Social comparison can motivate individuals to strive for improvement, but it can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, envy, and low self-esteem. Social media can exacerbate social comparison by providing a constant stream of curated images and information about others' lives.

Collective Action Problem
A collective action problem arises when individuals acting in their own self-interest lead to a suboptimal outcome for the group as a whole. This problem occurs when individual actions have a small impact on the overall outcome, but the combined actions of many individuals can have a significant effect. Examples include environmental pollution, traffic congestion, and the spread of misinformation. Addressing collective action problems often requires coordination, cooperation, and incentives to encourage individuals to act in the best interests of the group.

Q&A

  • What are some of the potential harms of social media use for young people?

    Surgeon General Murthy highlights several potential harms, including increased loneliness and isolation, bullying and harassment, negative body image, and exposure to harmful content. He also mentions the risk of excessive use and the manipulative features that can lead to addiction.

  • Why does Surgeon General Murthy believe that a warning label is necessary?

    Murthy argues that a warning label is needed to raise awareness about the potential risks of social media use, similar to how warning labels on cigarette packages have helped reduce smoking rates. He believes that this information is crucial for parents and young people to make informed decisions about their social media use.

  • How does Surgeon General Murthy address the criticism that the current concern about social media is simply another moral panic?

    Murthy acknowledges the comparison to past moral panics surrounding new media, but argues that social media's pervasiveness and impact on childhood are unique. He emphasizes the importance of protecting children from the negative aspects of social media while allowing them to reap its benefits.

  • What are some of the steps that parents can take to protect their children from the harms of social media?

    Murthy suggests that parents can delay the age at which their children start using social media, create tech-free zones in their homes, and encourage in-person interaction and communication. He also emphasizes the importance of parents coming together to support one another and establish shared rules about social media use.

  • What are some of the actions that tech companies and lawmakers can take to address the harms of social media?

    Murthy calls for tech companies to take responsibility for making their platforms safer, including implementing measures to protect children from harmful content and manipulative features. He also urges lawmakers to pass legislation that requires social media companies to prioritize the safety and well-being of young users.

  • What are some of the potential benefits of social media for young people?

    Murthy acknowledges that social media can be beneficial for some, particularly marginalized groups, by providing a sense of community and support. He also mentions that social media can be a valuable tool for learning and connecting with others.

  • What is the Surgeon General's overall message about social media and its impact on young people?

    Murthy's message is that social media can be both beneficial and harmful, and that it is important to be aware of the risks and take steps to mitigate them. He believes that a collective effort from parents, tech companies, and lawmakers is necessary to ensure that social media is used in a safe and healthy way.

  • How does Surgeon General Murthy's personal experience as a father inform his views on social media?

    Murthy shares his own experiences as a father of two young children, highlighting the challenges of navigating the digital world and the importance of protecting children from its potential harms. He expresses concern about the impact of social media on his children's development and well-being.

  • What is the significance of the Surgeon General's warning label proposal?

    The warning label proposal is significant because it represents a concrete step towards addressing the potential harms of social media. It is a call to action for parents, tech companies, and lawmakers to take responsibility for protecting young people from the negative aspects of social media.

  • What are some of the challenges in addressing the harms of social media?

    Murthy acknowledges that addressing the harms of social media is a complex and challenging task. He highlights the need for ongoing research, the difficulty of balancing benefits and harms, and the need for a collective effort from multiple stakeholders.

Show Notes

Warning: This episode contains mentions of bullying and suicide.

A rising tide of mental health problems among teenagers has sent parents, teachers and doctors searching for answers. This week, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, offered one: social media.

Today, Dr. Murthy discusses his proposal to require platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram to include warning labels, like those that appear on tobacco and alcohol products.

Guest: Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general.

Background reading: 

For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.

Comments (1)

Annice Barber-petroff

As a 21 year old, I can with full certainly tell you that Instagram and YouTube has made my depression exponentially worse for the past five years. The longer I spend on them, the more I feel decline. Short-form content has also ruined my attention span and memory. They've taken me away from my family, friends, and honestly myself - from my own thoughts and relaxation. After I finish the podcast, I think I'm going to delete my insta account.

Jun 21st
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America’s Top Doctor on Why He Wants Warning Labels on Social Media

America’s Top Doctor on Why He Wants Warning Labels on Social Media

The New York Times