As a species, humans don’t respond to sweeping changes especially well. This certainly holds true for new technologies, which often fill people with uncertainty, suspicion, or a sense of foreboding that borders on being superstitious. Atlantic contributor Adrienne LaFrance noted that “in the early days of the telephone, people wondered if the machines might be used to communicate with the dead.” The advent of the computer produced so much dread that the term “Computerphobia” was coined to capture the anxiety people felt about possibly “losing power,” “looking stupid,” or “losing control.” And in 2019 humans laughed nervously at the news that constantly looking down at smartphones and tablets might be causing horns to grow on the backs of our skulls.
Hold on — smartphones give us horns? Are they smart horns, or is that a dumb question? More importantly, is that a dumb idea? Perhaps horns are the new ghost in the phone. Well, unlike the notion that old-timey phones could dial great Caesar’s ghost or Little Caesar’s deceased grandma up in pizza heaven, the claim that smartphones are causing us to bend our necks in skull-altering ways sounds like it might be backed by science. Headlines about the head horns exploded across the internet in reaction to a June 2019 BBC article about how the human skeleton has adapted to the physical requirements of modern life. The article specifically cited findings by scientists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia.
Those scientists, David Shahar and Mark Sayers, decided to study people’s noggins after noticing what seemed to be an increase in the occurrence of a “spike-like” growth at the back of the skull. It’s important to note that the scientists don’t use the term “horn” to describe these protuberances — which are “less than half an inch to just over an inch” long, according to Time. The media, however, called them “horns,” presumably because that makes for a great — if slightly misleading — headline, and who are we to let science or accuracy get in the way of a good headline? Anyway, these occipital “horns” were first studied in 1885 and thought to be exceedingly rare. Intrigued by the spike in cases, Shahar and Sayers X-rayed the craniums of more than 1,000 people ages 18 to 86 and found that about one in every four people aged 18 to 30 had occipital protuberances, a much higher rate than observed in older age groups.
Shahar told the BBC these skull growths might stem from “text neck,” the term doctors use to describe the pain and strain caused by looking down while texting. The basic idea is that these horns are an adaptation to accommodate the stress of holding the weight of a human head at an awkward angle instead of balancing it upright. So the subjects in the study must have looked down at their smartphones or tablets a ton, right? Well, we don’t know because, as Time pointed out, the study didn’t measure those behaviors.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that younger people use smartphones and tablets more than older people. But we also can’t say that this research just proves that smartphones are causing people to grow “horns” without showing proving a few additional points: (1) the strain of text neck is a plausible cause for the kind of strain that might cause spike-like growths on a skull; (2) the subjects who had higher rates of head horn also bend their necks to look at their texting devices more often than the people that don’t, and (3) there isn’t some other source of strain that could explain the same phenomenon.
Since the researchers didn’t actually measure smartphone and tablet usage, we already know we can’t establish whether the people with head horns had text neck. If the one out of four patients aged 18-30 who had horns looked at smartphones and tablets at the same rate or less often than the three out of four people, that would undermine the premise of these reports. Then there’s the question of plausibility, which we haven’t actually established.
The BBC highlighted indirect evidence that might support the smart-horn hypothesis. It named other instances wherein people’s bones seemingly adapted to different forms of physical stress or lack thereof. The most dramatic example was the literally big-boned residents of the Tonga archipelago, whose skeletons appeared to have grown to accommodate the physical burden of lifting heavy rocks. But is that sort of strain in any way comparable to looking down at your Android a whole bunch? Not according to critics of Shahar and Sayer’s research.
One of those critics was mechanical sciences professor Dr. Mariana Kersh, who told CNN, “Bone adaptation usually occurs in response to dynamic repetitive movements that the body is not accustomed to seeing” and that based on “what we know about how bone responds to mechanical loading, changing posture alone would likely not result in bone changes, especially within a single lifetime.” Anthropology professor John Hawks has suggested that the data from the study wasn’t even analyzed in a consistent way. This brings us to the issue of the subjects who served as the basis for that data.
Shahar and Sayers had no control group (i.e. no standard for comparison), and the study participants were all people seeing a chiropractor for “severe enough neck issues to have X-rays taken.” It’s not remotely obvious that these people are representative of the general population or that the neck issues were at all phone-related. So why the brouhaha over a super questionable study that proves nothing and doesn’t actually make the claim that people are growing “horns”? Maybe that story subtly taps into the phone ghost uncertainty of the past. After all, Arthur C. Clarke did say, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And as we all know, magic is of the devil, and it doesn’t get any more devilish than horns.