News headlines spread false claims of new clinical phenomenon

Liz Meszaros, MDLinx | June 26, 2019

A study picked up by several news outlets—including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the BBC—raised the alarm that excessive phone use by millennials is causing them to grow horns out of their heads.   

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Do cellphones really cause young adults to grow horns on their heads? The answer is a resounding “no”

The various headlines stated:

  • How modern life is transforming the human skeleton (BBC)
  • About the Idea That You’re Growing Horns From Looking Down at Your Phone… (NYT)
  • ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. (WaPo)

For the study that spawned these headlines, researchers collected x-ray images showing the curvature of the neck and the back of the skull in 1,200 subjects aged 18-80 years. They found that the prevalence of prominent exostosis from the enlarged external occipital protuberance (EEOP)—was 33%, with males being over five times more likely to develop these protuberances than females.

The authors were David Shahar, a chiropractor, and Mark G.L. Sayers, associate professor of biomechanics, both from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. They concluded: “We hypothesize EEOP may be linked to sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets. 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.”

Based on these findings, they reported that they were the first to document a “physiological or skeletal adaptation to the penetration of advanced technology into everyday life” because they found a “hook or hornlike feature jutting out from the skull, just above the neck,” as described in the Washington Post.

After the Washington Post ran its initial story, it was updated, citing concerns about a possible conflict of interest on Shahar’s part. He is the owner of Dr Posture, an online store that recommends ways to improve posture, including Shahar’s Thoracic Pillow.

Some problems

For unexplained reasons, these outlets picked up results from a study published not-so-recently (February 2018) in Scientific Reports. In clinical research terms, this is old news. And, as it turns out, the study protocol and results leave much to be desired.

The idea that young adults are really growing horns from using their cellphones is preposterous, according to John Hawks, PhD, in his blog, posted the day the headlines hit. Dr. Hawks, a professional paleoanthropologist, voiced his disappointment that “serious problems seem to have slipped through the scientific review of this paper.”

These include a figure that doesn’t match the results, no table of results, and inconsistencies in measurements and imaging, according to Dr. Hawks.

“This skull horn study simply doesn’t measure up. The basic data do not convince me that anything is being measured consistently. And the 2018 paper, which gave rise to today’s Washington Post story, has such a major error that Scientific Reports clearly should never have published it. Maybe this trait really is changing in Australia. It would be really cool if it’s true. But these studies don’t show that,” concluded Dr. Hawks.

Snopes.com also had plenty to say about the headlines and the study as well, and none of it was good.

Amidst the possible breaches in professional disclosure and the serious flaws in the research, the question still remains: Why did news agencies from around the world suddenly resurrect results from an apparently flawed study published over a year-and-a-half ago?

And should we worry that young adults are using their cellphones too much and putting themselves at risk for neck injuries? Yes. But should we worry that they will sprout horns out of their heads? Hmm, probably not.

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