It turns out that using a cell phone doesn’t give you horns after all.
A prominent scientific journal has walked back claims that repeated cell phone use may result in bony, horn-like growths at the base of the human skull. The retraction by Scientific Reports came months after the false claim went viral online, thanks to a laundry list of news outlets that eagerly misinterpreted the study’s already shaky findings.
The Washington Post was one of numerous outlets that conveyed that misunderstanding in aggressively inaccurate headlines.
But as Motherboard noted at the time, the study found nothing of the sort. The original study, conducted by Australia's University of the Sunshine Coast, focused on the prevalence of “enlarged external occipital protuberances,” or small bone spurs resulting from a likely combination of chemical, genetic, environmental, or other factors.
While the researchers did indicate that such bony growths tend to be more common among younger people, the 2018 study never even mentions cell phone use or technology. The researchers separately theorized in 2016 that “the increased use of hand-held technologies from early childhood” might be one potential cause, but the connection was never proven.
That didn’t stop a laundry list of outlets from aggregating and perpetuating the Post’s unsubstantiated conclusion. And while the Post added a statement to its original article (with a focus on how one of the study’s authors had a “conflict of interest” given his work as a chiropractor selling “posture devices”), the article’s content and headline remain unchanged.
In a statement, study authors David Shahar and Mark Sayers place the lion’s share of the blame for cell horn hysteria at the feet of the media.
“Because of the international coverage, the study was accessed more than 107,000 times at its source, and with that level of interest came some misinterpretations of the study,” they said. “We have changed the language in the paper as well as a graph’s legend to wording that cannot be misinterpreted and which clarifies our processes.”
They pair went on to note that the word “horn” was never even used in their original study, and said that while it was “scientifically appropriate to hypothesize” that “poor postures associated with hand-held technologies” could have contributed to the growths, they’ve now removed that hypothesis entirely given a lack of underlying evidence.
“Our hypothesis that it could be caused by poor postures associated with hand-held technologies led to debate that unfortunately overshadowed the significance of the findings,” the duo said. “This hypothesis has now been removed, but we see a need for more research into the possibility that hand-held technologies might be an important factor in poor posture among young people.”
But experts in bone development and statistics suggest the study’s remaining conclusions are still shaky, and the article should be pulled offline entirely.
“I actually think Nature should remove the original article as the correction has not proved their point,” Sara Becker, a bioarchaeologist at the University of California Riverside told PBS.
Granted the damage has already been done, and the millions of Americans who still believe that cell phone use results in new, devlish appendages will likely never see the correction.