If headlines are to be trusted, excessive cell phone use has been linked to everything from poor posture to reduced sex drive to even low sperm count. Now, we can add yet another potential danger of excessive technology use to the list: according to a series of reports from researchers in Australia, overreliance on mobile devices can lead to actual freaking horns growing out of the back of your skull.
According to a story published Thursday morning in the Washington Post, researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, have published research suggesting that some people between the ages of 18 and 25 are developing small bone spurs, or enthesophytes, at the backs of their necks as a result of weight being shifted from the spine to the muscles at the back of the head. Because such bone growth is often caused by tilting the head forward, study authors David Shahar and Mark Sayers speculated in a 2016 paper that they may be caused by “the increased use of hand-held technologies from early childhood.” Translation: If you text a buttload when you’re a tween/teen, you might not end up looking exactly like the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, but you might get a little more skull than you bargained for.
Shahar and Sayers have published a number of papers to this effect, with the latest one coming out in 2018, meaning these study findings aren’t exactly new. Yet a recent BBC feature on how advances in technology have led to changes in the human musculoskeletal structure have drawn renewed attention to the pair’s findings. And unsurprisingly, they’ve sparked a number of strong reactions on social media, with many people tweeting (on their phones, presumably) that the study has made them terrified of excessive cell phone use. “I did not have ‘kids growing horns” on my dystopian hellscape bingo card but I do now,'” one person wrote, while another tweeted, “Just threw my phone across the room.”
However, there are more than a few reasons to take the study findings with a grain of salt. For starters, the study has some serious flaws, according to John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist who wrote in a Medium post that the study had no table of results and that it presented two conflicting sets of data regarding the prevalence of the trait in men versus women. (The text of the study says that men have much higher rates of extended external occipital protruberance [EEOP], but a figure in the study indicates that the rates are similarly high among both men and women.) “The numbers in the study don’t add up,” Hawks told Rolling Stone. “I don’t think it’s impossible that this trait is changing, but the study does not give any reason to believe it.” Additionally, Hawks said, past research shows that while it’s unclear what exactly causes this trait, some populations in which high rates have been observed frequently perform heavy manual labor — tasks that presumably put much more stress on the neck muscles than simply looking down at your phone bunch.
It’s also important to note that the study authors do not prove a link between cell phone use and the development of these so-called “horns,” they merely suggest it in the discussion section of their 2016 paper. And indeed, the Washington Post story seems to fall squarely into the genre of people freaking out over how tech can negatively affect young people’s health, which also includes such stories as ominous warnings about the dangers of “text neck” or “sex recessions” brought on by excessive phone use. The various threats associated with technology may attract clicks, but they’re largely unsupported by research and arguably say more about our complicated relationship with technology than they do about the health risks posed by tech itself.
That said, according to Dr. Steven Shoshany, a chiropractor based in New York, so-called “text horn” is absolutely a thing. “As a practicing chiropractor, it’s an epidemic. I see it all the time on X-rays,” he says, estimated that “40 to 50%” of his clientele has some version of it. He says it’s particularly common for young people to develop it because their bones are more malleable than those of adults. “We’re seeing children as young as 10 developing this,” he said. “And it’s something we’re seeing more and more.” Shoshany is unequivocal that he believes excessive phone use is the culprit, and recommends that parents limit screen time for their children to one to two hours a day as a result.
If you’re curious as to whether or not you’ve developed so-called skull horns, Shahar says it’s easy to find out: you simply can reach toward the back of the base of your skull and feel whether you have a slight protuberance there. But truth be told, even if you do, as Motherboard’s Caroline Haskins points out, there are far more terrifying things in the world to freak out about than whether or not you have a small bone growing in the back of your skull — though if you’re freaked out about having poor posture, it’s probably worth putting your phone down for a few minutes, because what difference does it make if you read that text on the group thread about the new Taylor Swift video?