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Sci-Tech

No, you're not growing horns because of your phone

Multiple reports suggest our reliance on phones may be causing us to grow weird horns in the back of our head. But that's not the case.

shahersayers

Not the horn you were thinking of, I bet.

Scientific Reports/Shahar and Sayers

If you believe the internet, you might think horns are growing out of your skull because of your phone. Research by two biomechanists at Australia's University of the Sunshine Coast hypothesizes that overuse of handheld devices has led to young people developing tiny "horns" at the back of their skull. The protrusions have sent a wave of hysteria across social media, as the study seemingly delivers another horror story about the perils of today's technology.

Digging deeper, however, paints a different picture. While it's true that unusual bony growths may be seen at higher frequencies than expected in younger generations, there's zero data suggesting phones are to blame. 

The research in question originally appeared in prestigious Nature journal Scientific Reports in February 2018 but has bent some out of shape in the past week due to a BBC report titled "How modern life is transforming the human skeleton." The BBC's piece detailed a handful of studies showing how our bones are changing as our lifestyles shift and included the Scientific Reports study detailing a spiky growth at the base of the skull.

Subsequent reports by Australia's news.com.au on June 19 and The Washington Post on June 20 explored this one peculiar abnormality, with slightly more alarming headlines. "Younger generations are growing horns in the back of their head" read News.com.au. "Horns are growing on young people's skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests," the Post's headline exclaimed.

It's an intriguing and captivating idea: Our reliance on phones has caused us to physically change our bodies. 

But it's really not the case at all. 

What's a horn?

It's likely that when you think of horns, you either think of the Horn of Gondor from Lord of the Rings or of the hardened protrusions from the head of animals like the rhinoceros, the cow or even the giraffe. The first thing to note is we are not growing visible horns from our skulls -- what many of the reports refer to is small growths at the base of our skull. 

Feel around the back of your head and you might even be able to feel a protrusion. In scientific terms, it's known as an "external occipital protuberance" -- a term the paper in question uses extensively. The paper was looking at this region of the skull and examining how bone may form over the ligaments and tendons connected to this part of your head. However, the term "horn" is not used in that original paper or the BBC story. That element of the story only came in later.

"It was a description captured by the media," notes David Shahar, first author on the Scientific Reports paper at the center of the media storm. "But this is just to describe its shape. Not to describe anything else in terms of the metrics associated at a cellular level and so forth." 

So, we're not growing horns -- but we may be growing unusual spurs at the back of our skull in our youth, right? What's the explanation for the head spikes? 

The devil is in the details.

What the research says

The study in question examined 1,200 X-rays of males and females between 18 and 86. It then divided the results according to age, with a decade-by-decade approach, and examined the size of the extended external occipital protuberance and how it relates to gender and the degree of forward head protraction, a term used to describe how far forward your head rests.

The unusual growth is present in many of our skulls and isn't dangerous or particularly noteworthy on its own. In fact, it can happen in other locations in the body as you age.

In the study, the researchers found the 18- to 30-year-old age group had the highest incidence, an unexpected result. The Washington Post notes how the researchers found "the size of the bone growth ... actually decreased with age," but this is not the case. The study shows that it increases with age after your 40s -- it's just that the youngest age group has an abnormally high incidence of the protrusion.

However, one of the study's major pitfalls is that it doesn't provide any data related to phone use. No data within the paper supports this conclusion and this study hasn't been performed. Rather, authors Shahar and Sayers offer up suggestions for the next step. They finish their report with the statement: 

"We hypothesize that the use of modern technologies and handheld devices, may be primarily responsible for these postures and subsequent development of adaptive robust cranial features in our sample."

The key is the word hypothesize -- this is not a truth, fact or even a suggestion of either. It is a proposed explanation that requires further investigation. 

"The most obvious thing is that we can't show causal effect, of course. So it is weaker evidence," says Mark Sayers, co-author on the paper. To actually perform a study on whether our phones are causing this bizarre horn, we'd need to look at the protuberance in a group of 18- to 30-year-olds who don't use their phones every day and compare them to those who do.

What the data doesn't say

There are some questionable figures in the Scientific Reports paper, such as Figure 3, which specifically points to the differences in size of forward head protraction but doesn't include a legend or explanation of the graph beyond its axis labels, unusual for a publication like this. Some have also said a subsequent graph contradicts the text.

We're also not sure about how this growth developed in young adults over the last century, with the paper pointing to an 1875 French surgeon's analysis of the bone and only one previous data set, which was provided by the same two researchers. 

"There's no historical data saying that this is actually something that's just starting to appear," says Natalie Sims, a bone biologist at St. Vincent's Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. 

It's also important to note that Shahar, first author on the paper, runs the website and YouTube channel Dr. Posture. He mentions he still treats patients in multiple locations and actively promotes good, healthy posture. In the past, he has developed a thoracic pillow in an attempt to fix bad posture and has publicized this on both the website and YouTube. He maintains that he has no conflict of interest in this particular study.  

"I have never ever mentioned the word Dr. Posture or any of my other concepts that I've developed over the years, only because I was concerned that people will think that I do have any type of a vested interest," he says. "I don't, but there is nothing I can do about it. This is what I did in 2007 in terms of trying to help my patients and the population."

Hornless

In reporting on the research, several outlets suggested the "horns" may be a sign of skeletal degradation, or at least associated with posture problems. However, there's no reason to believe that. Sims notes it's not necessarily a bad thing to see those protrusions and there's no evidence to suggest they are associated with negative outcomes. If our phones were causing this, it may just be a physiological adaptation to changing circumstances.

"We're doing whatever we need to do to cope with this additional stress on our skulls because we're looking down all the time now," she says. "To call this a degenerative change, I think is not helpful, and probably not accurate. We don't really know that."

It's fascinating to think our reliance on our devices can cause a change in the very way our bodies are structured -- but it's also the kind of idea that requires extensive follow-up and examination of the data before drawing such conclusions.

Multiple publications, including The New York Times, have refuted the claims since they were originally posted, but that can't stem the viral nature of the initial piece.  As of writing, The Washington Post's story has been shared 10,000 times on Facebook, while The New York Times piece has only been shared 66 times.

It's a noteworthy difference because it highlights our predisposition to fear what our devices might silently be doing to us and the need to exhibit caution, particularly when it comes to scientific research. It's true that when the digital age ensnared us all, we started seeing problems like "tech neck" and other slouching-related maladies doing damage to our spines. With the rollout of 5G, we're again asking ourselves about the perils of our phone use and whether our ever-connected world is a threat to our health. 

But for now, there's no reason to think your iPhone is going to give you horns.