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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


"The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children," the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, wrote in a New York Times commentary republished Monday by Star Tribune Opinion. That means keeping them as safe as possible, which is why governments throughout the years have acted on direct health threats to kids — something Murthy is urging with his call to require a surgeon general's warning label on social media platforms "stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents."

In a medical emergency, Murthy wrote, "you don't have the luxury to wait for perfect information." And yet the data driving Murthy and others alarmed about the deleterious effect of social media on young people is compelling. For instance, Murthy reports, adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face twice the risk of symptoms of anxiety and depression — and as of last summer, social media time by this cohort was 4.8 hours a day. What's more, Murthy states that nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies. That attitude, as too many parents tragically know, can result in horrific health outcomes, including, in extreme cases, death.

"One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it. That is how parents tell me they feel when it comes to social media — helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms," Murthy wrote, later adding: "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."

So it's appropriate to give these parents, and more profoundly their kids, some help. Which is what a warning label would be: help, but not a panacea, something Murthy seemingly acknowledges when he also calls for action not just from Congress, but companies and society, too.

But companies — especially those, as Murthy describes, as well-resourced as social media firms — are by design motivated by profit, which in their case can come from ever-more-addictive algorithms. The surgeon general, conversely, who works for the public good, is motivated by improving public health.

Congress should be, too. And it will need to be, since a warning label requires congressional approval. Concern for kids should never be a partisan issue, so Democratic and Republican lawmakers should be able to coalesce around Murthy's request.

Lawmakers should also hear, and heed, Murthy's call to shield young people "from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds." Suggested measures on preventing platforms "from collecting sensitive data from children" and restricting push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll deserve strong consideration, too, as does Murthy's call for companies "to share all of their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public — currently they do not — and allow independent safety audits."

Murthy compared his call for a warning label to government action on airplane, automobile and food safety. And, importantly, he is not calling for a ban on social media but rather a warning to help guide young people and the adults influential in their lives manage it.

"Governments have lots of regulatory and policy tools at their disposal, and this is very much on the end of the spectrum of trying to encourage people toward certain types of behavior, and avoiding such behavior that we might find particularly problematic, without having to impose more draconian types of policies or regulations," Ezra Golberstein, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Division of Health Policy and Management, told an editorial writer.

Today's connectivity is a tremendous advantage for those who use it wisely. As with any tool, its power also can be wielded poorly by users, leveraged negligently by self-interested providers or even used deliberately for ill. The debate surrounding the subject often dwells on the negative variables while producing little redirection toward the positive ones.

Murthy's proposal may strike some as window dressing but is actually a concrete step. As he writes, "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."

That ethos should guide Congress, too.