No, phones don’t cause horns to grow on skulls

The Washington Post ran this headline: “’Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.”

The headline is entirely correct except for a few minor points:

  • They’re not horns, which point up from the forehead. They’re more like little 1/2 inch nubs protruding downwards from the back of the skull.
  • They’re not new. There’s no comparison group to show that these are more or less common than they used to be.
  • They’re not “growing” on people’s skulls. There was no follow-up to show that they’re getting larger. They’re just “there”, and may always have been there.
  • Phone use isn’t to blame. Phone use habits weren’t even recorded, and no comparison between phone users and non-users was possible.
  • No research has suggested that any of the headline is accurate.

The article stems from two studies performed in 2018 by a chiropractor and a specialist in biomechanics, both from Australia. One study was on four teenagers whose parents brought them into a chiropractor to address their poor posture. Lumps were noted on their skull x-rays (Why were skull X-rays are needed to assess posture? Who knows. At least there wasn’t something important like a brain being irradiated for no reason. But I digress.)

The authors speculated that perhaps the bony lumps appeared as a result of biomechanical stress from the teens’ leaning forward to look at their phones. It’s not an entirely outlandish idea – bones can and do remodel in response to mechanical stress. But it was only an idea, and an entirely untested idea at that. No one had asked the teens if they had used cell phones, or for how many hours; and there was no mention of any symptoms or problems the teens had (other than that their posture was upsetting to their parents.) And there was no comparison between phone users and non-users to help establish that phone use could be correlated with those bone lumps.

Later in 2018, the same authors reviewed 1200 X-rays from patients seen at chiropractic clinics. They found that 33 percent had these prominent boney lumps on the back of their heads—prominent meaning more than 10 mm, or about ½ an inch. There was no mention of cell phone use; there was no comparison group; and there was no correlation with any symptoms whatsoever. And certainly – I can’t stress this enough – the boney lump nub things did not look like horns.

I think the WaPo editor just like the idea of a headline including the words Horns, Growing, Skulls, Phone, and Blame. That’s a magical combination. Really: Put those words in any order, and it’s a winner. But that doesn’t make it an accurate headline.

Don’t get me wrong: When you look around, you do see people hunching forward, clutching their phones. That can’t be good for posture. And I could see that contributing to neck and back pain. But to go from there to “Phones are to blame for head horns” is, well, ridiculous. WaPo, you really should have done better.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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