Tech by VICE

‘Phones Cause Teens to Grow Horns’ Is a Dumb Tech Moral Panic

Some amount of young people may have tiny bones growing from the base of their skulls. But don’t freak out.

by Caroline Haskins
Jun 20 2019, 4:29pm

Image: Scientific Reports

This morning, the Washington Post published an article that showcased the work of David Shahar and Mark Sayers—two health science researchers from Australia's University of the Sunshine Coast—who claim that horns are growing from the lower skulls of young people. They claim that it’s linked to a forward-and-down head posture, and one possible cause is device use.

Shahar and Sayers’s research focuses on enthesophytes, or bits of bone that grow due to some combination of chemical, genetic, environmental, or use factors. Basically, they’ve found that these skull “horns” are somewhat common in young people in particular.

Their research from 2016 claims that in a group of 218 18 to 30-year-olds, 41 percent of them had small enthesophytes at the base of their skulls. In 2018, the researchers examined four 13 to 16-year-old boys with enthesophytes and found that they didn't have known genetic markers linked to the development of bony appendages.

The researchers don’t mention technology or smartphones at all in their 2018 research, but they do make a statement in the discussion section of their 2016 paper. They make an educated guess that the prevalence of enthesophytes may have to do with “the increased use of hand-held technologies from early child-hood.”

Their research does not prove that device use causes these bony appendages. They don’t even claim that device use and appendages are correlated. They simply make an educated guess in the discussion section, pointing to a topic for future research.

The Washington Post story built off a feature published in the BBC, which also showcased the researchers’ work. A flow of aggregated news stories has continued the narrative that phone and device use is making us into horned monsters. There’s something validating about having our relationship with technology become physical, visible under an x-ray. But ultimately, the discussion about this research amounts to little more than a moral panic about our use of new technology.

We’ve seen this before with the discussion about “smartphone pinky,” when people said that a very normal curve in the pinky bone was, in fact, a deformity caused by balancing your smartphone on your pinky when you hold it. We’ve also seen this manifest through internet folklore like Momo, a creepy monster that, according to unreliable local news accounts, told kids to hurt themselves in YouTube videos. The Momo news cycle quickly escalated to a moral panic about what kids see on the internet.

No one can say that these head horns don’t exist. The radiological evidence is there. But what’s important to note is that we don’t know that smartphones cause them, and they don’t have a prevalent, established set of symptoms.

After all, smartphones aren’t the only things that encourage you to have a posture where your head is inclined slightly down and forward. Reading a book, writing, and other activities can also involve having your head in the same position as using a smartphone.

There's also several reasons some people have poor posture that have nothing to do with smartphone use or discipline. A Harvard Medical School blog states that having inflexible muscles or a weak back and butt can contribute to a default state of bad posture.

Shahar and Sayers wrote in their 2016 research that 15.2 percent of people in their sample were “symptomatic.” But this meant that they were reporting “mild headaches.” It’s hardly a debilitating problem, and it’s a symptom that could easily have multiple causes.

In fact, in their 2018 research, which focused on four teenage boys, Shahar and Sayers noted that the boys weren’t in pain, and weren’t presenting any concerning symptoms. Their parents were just concerned about their bad posture.

“It is important to note that the radiological and postural analyses with these teenagers originally commenced as a result of parental concern with regard to each participant's posture,” they wrote. “All participants were otherwise asymptomatic.”

The parents also noted in interviews that they had been concerned about their kids' posture since “early childhood.” Since these teens were born between 2002 and 2005, it’s possible that they’ve been using devices from a young age. It’s possible that this has contributed to their bad posture. It’s equally possible that other activities, and perhaps certain muscular-skeletal quirks, are contributing to their bad posture.

In April, the World Health Organization released a set of recommendations in which it said that caregivers should limit “sedentary screen time”—or watching videos on phones, tablets, computers, or TV—for children under five. Specifically, it said to limit this activity to no more than an hour at a time. Screen time, according to the WHO, is not recommended at all for infants less than a year old.

This set of recommendations was made because it’s not good for children to be sedentary, not because screen time is inherently worse than other sedentary activity.

Now, researchers noticing that there’s a not-life-threatening bone developing at the base of the skull in a some number of young people. It’s linked to bad posture, but not necessarily smartphone use.

There are important discussions to be had about platforms inducting young children as future customers by providing “kid-friendly” services. YouTube has YouTube Kids. Amazon has Amazon for Teens. Facebook has Messenger Kids. These companies fostering a sense of trust from a child that’s not truly earned, because these companies weren’t built to help kids. They were built to serve ads and profit, and they’ll profit more if kids spend more time looking at screens. This reality is arguably more worthy of our time and attention than 10 millimeter enthesophytes.