“Phones Causing Teens to Grow Horns”; Another Click-Baity and Misleading Article

June 21, 2019

Designed to Fan the Flame of Moral Panic

We recently became aware of this click-bait-like article in the National Post titled

“Horns are growing on young people’s skulls, and phone use could be to blame” as it was making its rounds on social media (1). In fact, other Canadian social media safety presenters are posting it on their social networks without providing context as to the content of this article, which only fans a moral panic we believe supports their fear-based approach to teaching social media safety and digital literacy.

Other news titles on the topic include:

  • “Humans Have Started Growing Spikes in the Back of Their Skulls Because We Use Smartphones so Much” (2).
  • “Tech disorder? Smartphones linked to bizarre horn-like skull bumps” (3).
  • “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests” (4).

From my forensic anthropology studies back in college, this is something that is called an “occipital spur” which usually begins to form in late adolescence. One of these occipital spurs is known as an “inion hook” or a “spine spur.” Both an MRI and actual surgical picture can be located here (5). These are nothing new and have been around long before cellphones became popular.

The authors of the study that spawned this news article “hypothesize” that these occipital spurs, more specifically spine spurs, are becoming more frequent in teens than in the past, and they believe that cellphones are to blame. WOW! Based on what evidence? Because there is very little in their research study to support such a claim. At the very best, the research quoted in this article finds a correlation and NOT a causation. This research is also starting to get some real criticism, just look at some of the rebuttals made by one commenter:

Ryan Mandelbaum from Gizmodo wrote a very insightful critical analysis of this research and we encourage you to take a look (6). The research authors stated that they hypothesize these horns “may be linked to sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets.” The main goal of the research was to announce an interesting number of times the authors are seeing these happen. The Gizmodo post on the subject provides even more critiques with how the research was conducted.

What is the point of this blog post? Before experts in the social media safety and digital literacy field start posting articles from news agencies such as the one that spawned this posting, we should make sure that we do our research first to ensure its authenticity. Was the study peer-reviewed and did it use best practice research methods? What were the actual findings of the research? Is there research to support the claims, and what are the counter thoughts to such research? Often, media headlines skew and DO NOT reflect the actual findings of research to meet their click-bait needs (7).

Finally, for those in our industry, we need to know what click-bait is specific to online media. The headline such as “Cellphone use may be causing young adults to grow horns on skulls” is designed to be provocative, especially on the hot button issues presently surrounding teens and their use of cellphones, and to drive the media outlet’s SEO algorithms which equals advertising dollars. There is no doubt about it, the headline is click-bait and to ignore this fact is ignorance!

Could the authors of the research article be onto something? Perhaps, but too many people are marketing and trusting the research as 100% infallible, not to mention how news reports are misleading the actual findings of the research. More research is necessary and further exploration into “sustained aberrant postures” also needs to be done to clarify, as not only tech-related behaviours, but other sedentary lifestyle behaviours could be involved.

-Darren Laur









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