BY Fast Company 3 MINUTE READ

As we’re beginning to quantify exactly how bad social media is for public health, politicians are coming for Big Algorithm. Just this week, the U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy began a campaign to put an official warning label on social media, much like we see on tobacco and alcohol products.

Whether or not he succeeds remains to be seen; Murthy only has the authority to enact a surgeon general’s warning with approval from Congress. But he argues that such a label could be a meaningful design intervention. “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behaviuor,” he points out in a New York Times op-ed. “When asked if a warning from the surgeon general would prompt them to limit or monitor their children’s social media use, 76 percent of people in one recent survey of Latino parents said yes.”

But apps aren’t cigarette cartons. Social media sites, and their algorithms, are infinitely more complex than simple product packaging. So what would a surgeon’s general warning actually look like when applied to the digital platforms of social media? To get a better idea, we posed this question to designers at the four design and creative firms Metalab, PXP, BBH, and Huge. Within a very quick deadline, they sketched up a series of, not just warnings, but interventions that attempt to meet teens where they are without judgment.


by Metalab

“We took a native approach to the warning label. Rather than a warning label or badge that appears on app open, we identified key moments in the app experience to prompt reflection on the potential negative impacts—scrolling past a certain amount of time, commenting, posting, etc. This execution of the label doesn’t overly disrupt or annoy, but still grabs attention.

“Mindless scrolling is the norm. It was important to ensure the label was not a victim of it. To do this, we built visual badges resembling glass, pointing to both the fragility and value of the platform. The badges catch the eye and direct focus to the short and sweet messaging supporting the shift of unhealthy behavior and changing mindsets. There can be many iterations of the badges to facilitate newness and avoid repetition.”


by Cody Mindling, Senior Art Director, PXP

“The Surgeon General’s warning label on cigarettes literally changed consumers behaviors and relationship with the product. What better way to interrupt the infinite scroll of addicting content than with startling disorders front and center? The viewer has to confront these social media induced issues in black and white. Using existing tech within these platforms, we could see these appearing in the same way a paid ad is served, instead of a “buy now” button— we could lead users to get help.”


by Richard Supriano, Designer, BBH USA

“The inspiration behind the logo comes from the classic nuclear warning symbol, historically a successful caution symbol used to warn individuals about approaching nuclear/radiation-filled areas. The design takes the shape of the nuclear symbol while also merging it with Wi-Fi bands to cue social media. When considering other caution/warning signs, a question mark is popular among them, symbolizing caution. When paired with a simple globe graphic, it further emphasizes that this symbol is about social media and its global dangers, given its ability to connect instantly with anyone worldwide. The second half of the logo plays on the trending meme that an FBI agent is watching you and what you do on social media. After seeing the initial icon and warning text, you encounter a Special Agent card assigned to each user to keep them on their toes. This concept is inspired by the classic piracy FBI messages displayed on DVD movies. The approach is less serious and more playful, as I believe the average social media user’s attention span has degraded, and a humorous approach can keep people engaged rather than quickly scrolling past it.”


“No teenager ever in the history of teenagers has wanted to be told what to do. Yet, they will listen if it’s on their terms, doesn’t guilt trip them, or make them feel bad—social media already does that in their lives. Tapping into recent trends, they crave nostalgic times in music, fashion and brands—this territory uses playful twists on old expressions, visual styles and colors to create fun, thumb-stopping moments to help kids be way more aware of their feeds. For all of us old enough to remember the warning labels on our music, and for our extra-curricular lives, this is a sarcastic nod to an innocent time that plays into what this generation loves culturally about the past.

“Playful and friendly nudge for kids to identify with. We’ll cycle through a diverse range of duotone thumbs and use motion to direct users to swipe down to exit the warning after a set duration. It also includes a nod to vintage PSAs, with noise and blur and bold condensed type to bring the message home in a big way. Colors are pastel to soften the warning.”

Additional reporting by Liz Stinson and Hunter Schwarz