Warning: This product can cause insomnia, depression, addiction, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, self-harm, and an increased risk of suicide.

Would a message like that make you think twice about what you were about to do?

The US Surgeon General hopes so, and if he gets his way, that message–or something very much like it–will show every time one of the 37 million teenage social-media users opens TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, or any of the many other social media apps.

This week, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the chief medical doctor in the United States, called on Congress to require warning labels on all social media platforms, explaining the serious mental health risks associated with these platforms.

Similar labels already appear on products with known links to cancer and other physical ailments, such as cigarettes, alcohol and even some unregulated foods and drinks that are considered especially unhealthy.

Although warning labels would not necessarily serve as physical barriers to using social media apps, there is precedent that they can be effective. According to studies on smoking habits in the United States, when warning labels first appeared, almost 42% of American adults were daily cigarette smokers.

That statistic had fallen to 11.5% by 2021. Although the warning labels were not the only changes or added restrictions on the industry, the US Surgeon General’s office and the World Health Organisation (WHO) consistently advocate for clear messaging about health risks as a proven way to minimize risky behaviours.

In an essay for the New York Times, Dr Murthy bemoaned how health and safety legislation has dragged its feet in taking action on the well-documented health risks of excessive social media use, including research and advisories published by the US Surgeon General’s office last year.

A recent study has shown that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media run significantly higher risks of mental health problems. In contrast, 46% of teens surveyed said that social media has left them feeling worse about themselves and, in particular, their bodies.

But don’t worry—most teenagers don’t spend three hours a day on social media.

Or maybe you should worry, because the average is actually much higher.

According to another recent US poll, teenagers spend an average of 4.8 hours a day on sites and apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.

The problem isn’t confined to the US, of course. Social media has its hooks in people around the world, and young people have proven especially vulnerable to the mental health risks and ideological teachings available across platforms.

According to information from the 2022 Growing Up in Scotland study,  47.5% of young people aged 14 reported spending at least two hours a day on social media or messaging platforms. Almost one-third (29.6%) spent at least three hours a day, and 13.5% said they spent at least five hours a day.

Teachers across Scotland have reported rising levels of misogynistic behaviour in male pupils. Many have been able to draw a direct link to those behaviours and engagement with certain social media influencers, particularly Andrew Tate, an influencer with millions of followers who is currently awaiting trial on charges of rape, human trafficking and forming an organised crime group to exploit women sexually.

Manipulative advertisements that promote unrealistic body images or dangerous habits such as tobacco use and vaping, predatory social media users, or malicious attempts to steal or gravest personal data are all practical dangers that social media users face on a minute-by-minute basis.

These are not to mention the impacts on mental health and the feelings of missing out or being different that even “safe” social media use can create in young people.

In his letter, Dr Murthy describes the current state of online play as one in which parents and young people are woefully outmatched.

“There is no seatbelt for parents to click, no helmet to snap in place, no assurance that trusted experts have investigated and ensured that these platforms are safe for our kids.

“There are just parents and their children, trying to figure it out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world.”

He asked why not give parents and children some seatbelt by making the dangers of social media impossible to ignore?

“We have the expertise, resources and tools to make social media safe for our kids. Now is the time to summon the will to act. Our children’s well-being is at stake.”