Are we growing horns due to overuse of mobile phones?

A recent report compiled by biomechanists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia has claimed that young people who overuse their mobile phones can develop ‘horns’ on their heads! But are their claims unfounded?…

Are mobile phones giving us horns?

Believe it or not, a recent report compiled by two biomechanists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia has claimed that young people who actively overuse their mobile phones can develop ‘horns’ on the back of their heads!

When investigated further, however, it’s clear that, whilst there may be more cases of ‘unusually bony growth’ amongst younger people, there is no evidence to show that these are linked to phone usage… Phew!

This research was first published in the reputable Nature journal, Scientific Reports back in February 2018 and sparked a number of subsequent investigations from a range of sources. One report conducted by the BBC and titled, ‘How modern life is transforming the human skeleton’, highlighted how the increased bone growth at the base of our skulls could be the result of modern lifestyle shifts. Similarly, Australia’s news.com.au and The Washington Post also reported on the possibility that phones were causing young people to “grow horns”.

Yet, no matter how intriguing this theory may be, it has no basis in science.

What is meant by ‘horns’?

When you think of growing horns, it’s likely the first thing that springs to your mind will be the kind of horns that a rhinoceros, bull or mountain goat might have. The horns that the report talks about, however, do not protrude from the top of our heads. Instead, they are small lumps that form under the skin on the back of our heads.

In scientific terms, this is referred to as an ‘external occipital protuberance’, which is more like an abnormal lump or spur on the back of your skull. In fact, the term ‘horn’ did not directly come from the original paper. Instead, this was picked up by the media as a way of describing the shape.

What the original report claimed

The report conducted by the Australian university examined 1,200 x-rays of men and women, aged between 18 and 86. The data was divided into age categories on a decade-by-decade basis and the size of the extended external occipital protuberance was analysed.

An external occipital protuberance is actually common in many people and is usually not noticeable or dangerous.  However, the study found that 18-30 year olds had the highest incidence, which was unexpected.

Despite this revelation, the study offered no data that proved that these bone protrusions were linked to more phone use. Instead, the report writers end with a 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 word in their conclusion is ‘hypothesize’, which indicates that these assumptions are not based on fact, rather, they are in need of further research. They argue that performing tests on this theory would be difficult and thus admit that the evidence is ‘weak’.

Where is the evidence?

Throughout the paper, there are a number of graphs that do not include legends or explanations of where the research has come from. Furthermore, there is little data to show how this bone development has fluctuated over the last century. It is difficult, therefore, to say with any conviction that these protrusions have become more noticeable over time.

Whilst the suggest that overuse of mobile phones may be leading to a change in our bone structure is a fascinating concept, in order to prove such a sweeping statement, however, extensive research, follow ups and examinations would have to take place.

Many news outlets that subsequently reported on the paper have since refuted the evidence. Nevertheless, many of the original news stories accumulated tens of thousands of likes, shares and views across social platforms.

As with recent unfounded conspiracy theories over the allegedly harmful effects of 5G, outlandish claims like these can be very damaging to tech companies when they are not based on any real evidence. This makes it even more important for readers to always check sources and exhibit caution when it comes to new and seemingly wild health concerns linked to technology.

So, rest assured, mobile phone usage is not making us grow ‘horns’!