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U.S. surgeon general calls for social media warning labels amid concerns for youth mental health

As summer unfolds and young people spend more time on social media, concerns about its impact on mental health are growing.

In California, 73% of parents report higher social media use among their children than in other states, according to a recent Brookings Institution survey.

This week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on Congress to require a warning for visitors to social media platforms, similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol. He associated the sites with “significant mental-health harms for adolescents."


While the surgeon general can't enforce policy, child psychiatrist Dr. Willough Jenkins from Rady’s Children Hospital, hopes his announcement can influence public opinion on the issue.

“With him taking such a strong stance, it really allows us to have conversations with our children, with our school teachers, with our communities, and how we can support our children with their mental health,” Jenkins said.

It's unclear how the warnings suggested by Murthy would look and whether they'd be effective, but Jenkins says it’s a step in the right direction. Within the last 6 years, screening for social media usage for her patients has become standard.

“So for every single child that I see we talk about social media, and it always plays a part in what's going on for them,” Jenkins said. “I find that the children that struggle the most are probably that 10- to 14-year-old range. Where they're really struggling with understanding and moderating and limiting what they're seeing on social media”.

Jenkins says social media can impact youth of color differently.


A recent Brookings Institution survey found that 71% of Latino parents report heavy social media use among their children aged 10-18, while 76% say a social media warning would prompt them to limit their children's use of social media.

“Certainly here in San Diego, we have a large proportion of both Black and Latino children. And they certainly are using social media and engaging with it. And somewhat in different ways,” she said.

Jenkins says that while it may help connect them with their community, they can also face higher rates of online bullying than their white peers.

Seven-in-ten Black teens and 62% of Hispanic teens view online harassment and bullying as a major issue, compared to 46% of white teens, according to the Pew Research Center.

Latino and Black children have less access to mental health services compared to other groups, which exacerbates the risks of social media use.

UC San Diego Health clinical psychologist Dr. Kristen Duarte, who specializes in treating adolescents, says the recommendation is a step in the right direction.

“I think it could promote more change, research, improve interventions. At the same time, I don’t think it’s enough. I think it’s something that can be easily dismissed,” she said.

Duarte says it’s important to note that although social media can have a negative impact on the mental health of youth, it has also increased awareness making it easier for them to talk about it.

Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health at CVS Health Shelley Doumani-Semino said that in a recent CVS Health survey parents reported being slightly more concerned about their children’s mental health than their physical health.

“I think this is why we're seeing potential solutions that are trying to be formulated all over the place, sometimes legislatively, sometimes in schools and mostly in the home, and I think it's in the home that we're going to see the most impact,” she said.

Jenkins agrees that the most impactful changes can begin at home.

“We know that there's a lot of information that they can be confronted with, that they are not developmentally ready for. So I very much encourage families to wait to get their child on social media until at least age 13,” Jenkins said.

As Congress deliberates on the surgeon general's recommendations, mental health experts urge parents to engage in open conversations with their children, set boundaries on screen time, and promote healthy digital habits.