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Op-Ed: Smartphones leading to ‘horns-in-the-head’ study is flawed

We need to be cognizant with the about of time we spend using smartphones and health effects, whether that is connected with increased inactivity and hence a risk of developing metabolic diseases (see The Journal of Pediatrics: “Smartphones and Tablets and Adolescents: Small Size, Big Problems?“); or the recurrent research designed to assess the impact of radiation (which is complex and uneven, as the U.S. National Cancer Institute demonstrates). However, what we don’t need is research that creates unnecessary alarm bells and which isn’t backed up by sound science.

What did the research say?

In early 2018 a science team reported that they had found that we are spending so much time on our smartphones that it could be changing the shape of our skulls, as we shift our heads’ weight from over the spine to the neck muscles as a consequence of device use. This related to data which suggested that young adults are more likely to have a spike-like growth on the lower end of their skull that used to be extremely rare. This is something medically referred to as “external occipital protuberance.” Almost all occipital protuberances are harmless.

This research came from Australia ( University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland), where 1,200 X-ray images of adult Australians were studied, with the context of osteobiography, and this examination found that 41 percent of people between 18 and 30 had developed these bone spurs, which stands at 8 percent greater than the overall average.

Sparking media interest

This finding made an impact on many media outlets, such as the BBC. In several cases the media were a little too quick to swallow the research uncritically, using phrases like “established facts”. For some reason, certain sections of the media began running the story in 2019, over a year after the research was first published, such as the Washington Post which ran the headline: “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.”

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports: “Prominent exostosis projecting from the occipital squama more substantial and prevalent in young adult than older age groups”, and it can be accessed here.

Reactions from the scientific community

The paper has led to a considerable backlash from academics and renewed media interest. Some scientists have been quite vociferous, stating that saying the study is flawed. This includes pointing our that the study does not provide an adequate table of results to back up the horn claim. The absence of a table of results means that readers cannot assess how many protuberances the researchers observed from their X-ray analysis. It also stands that external occipital protuberance is well-known in anthropology, and there is a lot of geographical, demographical and historical data about the frequency of occurrence in different populations, which the research does not cite or appear to consider.

Scientists are also critical of the way media and science journalists have been writing about the story. For instance, William Harcourt-Smith, a physical anthropologist based at Lehman College in New York, has told Business Insider that while the study itself has flaws, “the way the media are using the word ‘horns’ is appalling” (the word ‘horns’ does not appear in the science paper).

Lessons to be learned?

The lessons here are that science is about an incremental advancement of knowledge and it can be contradictory until a repeatable pattern emerges. Furthermore, some scientific papers are better constructed than others; and some research turns out to be unsupported or simply wrong. The media also has a role to play. Dramatic headlines draw in readers, but they present the danger of misinforming the audience and debasing sound science.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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