When we at SciMoms come across news that makes parents worry, our instinct is to figure out if we really should be concerned, because we prefer to expend our energy to mitigate things that actually have potential to hurt our kids. That’s why we’re starting a new monthly segment called “Are We Worried” to take readers through our thinking as we decide how much we need to worry about the latest news about something that could hurt our kids. In our first installment, we’ll examine cell phones causing horn growths in children.
Nothing stirs up the parenting world like a new study about something that can harm our kids, especially when the culprit is new technology. It was no different with headlines suggesting that a new study shows that growths resembling horns are growing out of the bases of children’s skulls, and that overuse of cell phones is to blame.
Layla shared a story with us in our chat group from the Washington Post which reported:
“In academic papers, a pair of researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, argues that the prevalence of the bone growth in younger adults points to shifting body posture brought about by the use of modern technology. They say smartphones and other handheld devices are contorting the human form, requiring users to bend their heads forward to make sense of what’s happening on the miniature screens.”
Asking the relevant questions
Here’s how we decided whether or not we’re going to worry. Layla noted that she doesn’t see a noticeable difference in her son’s posture when he’s on a smart phone and when he’s reading a book. We all immediately wondered if these bone growths are real, how prevalent they are, and whether they can actually be attributed to smartphones and other handheld devices.
Alison wondered whether it could be related to how much more time kids spend on screens than reading books, if this is even happening. We considered this possibility, but realized that these bone growths should be happening in kids who read excessively.
I was curious enough to want to read the studies this story referenced, even though I didn’t necessarily want to invest the time if I didn’t have to. So I did the first thing I usually do when I see one of these types of stories floating around but don’t necessarily want to read the study: turn to Google. A search for “skull horns phone” revealed a slew of similar headlines about kids growing horns — one went as far as to call them “actual horns” — due to cell phone use.
Fortunately, among the many articles covering the story is one from Vice headlined “‘Phones Cause Teens to Grow Horns’ Is a Dumb Tech Moral Panic.” I personally wouldn’t call it “dumb” (I’m not a fan of the word in general) but it’s certainly a tech moral panic.
The author Caroline Haskins writes that the 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.” She notes that the World Health Organization’s recent recommendations to limit sedentary screen time were made “because it’s not good for children to be sedentary, not because screen time is inherently worse than other sedentary activity.”
That was enough to make me not worry as a parent about tablets or cell phones causing horn growths in my kids. Of course there are often circumstances that prompt us to dig into the scientific papers themselves, but nobody has time to read all of the peer reviewed literature on everything.
I was also curious about the study authors, as a few of the stories mentioned that one of the two is a chiropractor. A quick perusal of this chiropractor’s practice’s website revealed the usual evidence-scarce concepts that chiropractors often push, including that a broad scope of ailments can be attributed to purported displacements in the spine, which they call “subluxations,” that supposedly occur in nearly all people.
This isn’t to say that it makes sense to summarily dismiss all claims from all chiropractors all the time. But it is a flag that warrants further scrutiny.
Paleoanthropologist John Hawks says that the skull horn study just doesn’t measure up in a Medium post that throws cold water on the claim. He explains that the so-called horns are actually a “well-known anatomical feature called the external occipital protuberance. This common trait can often be felt as a bump on the back of the skull, at the middle, just above where the neck muscles attach. Men have it more often than women, so much so that this is one of several traits that help forensic scientists establish whether a skeleton belonged to a male or female individual.”
Worrying about our kids can be a literal pain in the neck, and we know that there’s plenty to worry about. We SciMoms do our fair share of worrying about our kids, but we’re also wary, at least initially, of any news stories that make claims about scientific research. In this case, we’re going to continue to encourage our kids to be active and get in plenty of reading, and keep internet safety in mind when it comes to screen time. We also know that bad posture can impact us negatively. But we’re not worried about our kid growing actual horns.