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The Surgeon General's Fear-Mongering, Unconstitutional Effort to Label Social Media

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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s extraordinarily misguided and speech-chilling call this week to label social media platforms as harmful to adolescents is shameful fear-mongering that lacks scientific evidence and turns the nation’s top physician into a censor. This claim is particularly alarming given the far more complex and nuanced picture that studies have drawn about how social media and young people’s mental health interact.

The Surgeon General’s suggestion that speech be labeled as dangerous is extraordinary. Communications platforms are not comparable to unsafe food, unsafe cars, or cigarettes, all of which are physical products—rather than communications platforms—that can cause physical injury. Government warnings on speech implicate our fundamental rights to speak, to receive information, and to think. Murthy’s effort will harm teens, not help them, and the announcement puts the surgeon general in the same category as censorious public officials like Anthony Comstock

There is no scientific consensus that social media is harmful to children’s mental health. Social science shows that social media can help children overcome feelings of isolation and anxiety. This is particularly true for LBGTQ+ teens. EFF recently conducted a survey in which young people told us that online platforms are the safest spaces for them, where they can say the things they can’t in real life ‘for fear of torment.’ They say these spaces have improved their mental health and given them a ‘haven’ to talk openly and safely. This comports with Pew Research findings that teens are more likely to report positive than negative experiences in their social media use. 

Additionally, Murthy’s effort to label social media creates significant First Amendment problems in its own right, as any government labeling effort would be compelled speech and courts are likely to strike it down.

Young people’s use of social media has been under attack for several years. Several states have recently introduced and enacted unconstitutional laws that would require age verification on social media platforms, effectively banning some young people from them. Congress is also debating several federal censorship bills, including the Kids Online Safety Act and the Kids Off Social Media Act, that would seriously impact young people’s ability to use social media platforms without censorship. Last year, Montana banned the video-sharing app TikTok, citing both its Chinese ownership and its interest in protecting minors from harmful content. That ban was struck down as unconstitutionally overbroad; despite that, Congress passed a similar federal law forcing TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, to divest the company or face a national ban.

Like Murthy, lawmakers pushing these regulations cherry-pick the research, nebulously citing social media’s impact on young people, and dismissing both positive aspects of platforms and the dangerous impact these laws have on all users of social media, adults and minors alike. 

We agree that social media is not perfect, and can have negative impacts on some users, regardless of age. But if Congress is serious about protecting children online, it should enact policies that promote choice in the marketplace and digital literacy. Most importantly, we need comprehensive privacy laws that protect all internet users from predatory data gathering and sales that target us for advertising and abuse.


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