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Factcheck: Are horns growing on young people's skulls because of mobile phone use?

The scientific journal that published this recent study said it is now looking into issues regarding the paper.

RECENT HEADLINES HAVE suggested mobile phone use has made young people grow horns at the base of their skulls.

The story – of course – went viral last week, but now there are questions about the reliability of the research and how accurate those news articles actually were. 

THE CLAIM

One of the earliest and most talked-about reports on the research appeared in The Washington Post, with the headline: ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests

The Washington Post article stated this new research suggests young people are developing “hornlike spikes” at the base of their skulls. 

Other similar stories followed:

This article itself links back to Australian news coverage about young people and “horns in the back of their skulls due to the extended use of technology like smartphones and tablets”. 

And the Australian coverage cites an in depth BBC article, which was about the wider topic of how modern life is transforming the human skeleton. The article included an interview with one of the researchers, David Sahar.

Sahar did not use the word ‘horn’ in his interview (and neither did the BBC), but did discuss growths at the base of young people’s skulls.

The BBC piece does mention that Sahar thinks the increase in prevalence of these spikes on young people’s skulls is “down to modern technology, particularly our recent obsession with smartphones and tablets”.

It adds:

Shahar thinks the spikes form because the hunched posture creates extra pressure on the place where the neck muscles attach to the skull – and the body responds by laying down fresh layers of bone.

THE EVIDENCE

The stories all cited a new study by Sahar and his colleague at Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast, Mark GL Sayers .

That research article was published in the journal Scientific Reports in February last year. It received minimal coverage at the time, and it was only with the recent BBC article that it began to come to prominence. 

The journal article detailed findings of bone growths – known as external occipital protuberance (EOP) – at the base of young adults’ skulls. More than 1,000 x-rays of people aged between 18 and 86 split into five age groups were examined.

It was found that 41% of the 18 to 30-year-olds developed these growths, referred to in media reports as horns. 

Sahar and Sayers pointed out that these kinds of “degenerative” skeletal features are usually associated with ageing but in this case the bump is linked to youth, the person’s sex and the degree of forward head protraction.

They claimed their findings and associated literature provide evidence that “mechanical load” plays a vital role in the development of these growths.

The researchers hypothesised that the growths “may be linked to sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence of extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets”. 

Essentially their theory was that these bone growths came about because young people were hunching with their heads down staring at their phones. 

“Our findings raise a concern about the future musculoskeletal health of the young adult population and reinforce the need for prevention intervention through posture improvement education,” Saher Sayers said. 

QUESTIONS

After the recent stories gained momentum online, soon there were questions about the reliability of the research they were based on.

The New York Times pointed out that this study did not have a control group and so did not show cause and effect in relation to device use. As the researchers were only examining x-ray images, they did not have any information about how much the people with bone growths were using devices. 

Jeff Goldsmith, a biostatistician at Columbia University told PBS that the “overall tone of the paper is at odds with the data they actually have to make any of these particular claims”.

“They’re arguing that young people are spending a lot of time hunched over their laptops and their phones,” he said. “But they don’t actually have any data about screen time, their [subjects'] typical posture or about any of the things that might give you a way to evaluate that hypothesis.”

Regina Nuzzo of the American Statistical Association highlighted the fact that the researchers worked from a database of people who went to a chiropractor for help. They also excluded anyone who presented with severe symptoms which could have skewed the data. 

Paleoanthropologist John Hawkes, who is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained in a blog post that these bone growths are actually quite common and not a new phenomenon.

He agreed it was plausible that a trait like the external occipital protuberance (EOP) – the spikes or ‘horns’, as the media reports described them – might occur as a result of posture as people look down at devices, but added:

“Some past populations with very strenuous activities involving the back and neck have a high incidence of large EOP or other skull developments related to neck muscle attachments.

So far, research into the skulls of past populations hasn’t pointed to a large role for posture, as might result from repetitive activities like weaving and basket-making. Most of the literature on the development of EOP and other traits of the occipital bone have focused on more strenuous activities like the use of a tumpline [a sling for carrying a load on the back].

Hawkes also explained that horns, as they are described by some media reports (though not by the researchers) are made of keratin, like fingernails, and these growths are not.  

He pointed out that the paper claims males are 5.48 times more likely to have enlarged bone growths than female but a graph included with the article shows the frequencies are similar.

Source: Scientific Reports

He said there was some “really great” research ongoing in this area that was finding traits may be changing as people’s activity patterns change – but added that this research takes a lot of experience in this area to make relevant comparisons.

“The details of the scientific work simply don’t support the story. Horns growing on young people’s skulls? It’s a juicy headline, but it’s not the truth,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Scientific Reports journal told TheJournal.ie it carefully investigates any concerns raised about papers it publishes.

He said the journal is “looking into issues regarding this paper and will take action where appropriate”.

The spokesperson also addressed questions about the alleged failure of Saher, who is a chiropractor, to declare a conflict of interest involving his business. Quartz reported that he is the creator of an online store that advertises information and products relating to forward head posture. 

“Scientific Reports requires authors to declare any competing financial and/or non-financial interests in relation to the work described that could be perceived by readers as inadvertently or deliberately influencing their presentation of the research,” the spokesperson for the scientific journal said.

The corresponding author is responsible for submitting a competing interests statement on behalf of all authors of the paper. 

He said if it was made aware of undisclosed competing interests not compliant with its policies, it would correct the record. 

The University of Sunshine Coast said it is not aware of plans by the researchers to change their work. 

VERDICT

We rate this claim: UNPROVEN

As per our verdict guide, this means: The evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim, but it is logically possible.

It is plausible that bone growths on any person’s skull – not just a young adult – could be caused by hunching over and looking down at a smartphone.

However, the authors of this research did not examine the smartphone use of the people whose x-rays they looked at. They therefore provided no evidence to back up their theory that the use of smartphones and other devices could have caused the bone spurs in young people. 

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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