Future Tense

Hold the Phone

Are you really going to grow a horn from slouching over your smartphone?

Kids sit on a bench and look at their smartphones.
Horned beings? Getty Images Plus

If you love to complain about the kids these days and their newfangled devices, I’ve got the perfect thing for you: Phones are causing horns to grow on young people’s skulls.

At least that’s what one local outlet recently made of some findings by Australian researchers, who published a trio of papers between 2016 and 2018 describing growths of small bone spurs on the back of young people’s skulls. The research has been out for a while but has received a round of media attention after a BBC article published last week mentioned it as an example of how the human skeleton is still evolving.

These “bony projections” are also called enthesophytes, and they’re fairly common among older people, so they’re thought to develop over many years. But David Shahar and Mark Sayers describe finding growths in younger people as well, and they hypothesize the bad posture invited by cellphone use—craning your neck and slumping downward to peer into your hands—could contribute to these growths.

This is scientific evidence that our screens are hurting us! It’s literally causing our skeletons to change!

Hold your panic. First off, the horn idea doesn’t quite work here. Horns are usually at the top of the skull, not the base of the skull near the neck, which is where these growths have been found. But, of course, that doesn’t make for as catchy a headline or tweet.

It’s also worth looking twice at the research. In their first study, published in 2016, Shahar and Sayers describe the rarity of studies examining skull growths in young. They go on to study X-rays of people between 18 and 30, and were surprised to find that there were growths in 41 percent of their 1,200-person sample. But this doesn’t mean that what they found is necessarily a new phenomenon. There is no comparison point to what the prevalence rates were in the analog days of yore, so it’s entirely possible these growths are just more common than we previously thought, not that this generation is developing them at a higher rate.

Perhaps studies describing these growths are rare because bone spurs are largely harmless. That could explain why they’ve gone undetected for so long: Unless growths are causing problems, people rarely get X-rayed just to see whether they have weird bones. And it turns out that many of us do! “Bone spur” sounds alarming, because we like to think of our skeletons as fixed things. But any kind of repeated pressure or use can result in our body developing adaptations. For instance, women who wear high heels might develop bone spurs in the heel, and apparently 1 in 10 people has a heel spur.

It’s also premature to blame technology for this. Shahar and Sayers are quick to say this themselves: In a 2018 paper studying four teenage boys with these bone growths, the researchers conclude that the growths could be a result of “biomechanical stress” rather than genetics or local inflammation. The source of that stress, though, is not something they study. They note that the boys were X-rayed after their parents expressed concern about their posture, so it could just be that these kids had bad posture to begin with, screen use or not. But Shahar and Sayers still run with the smartphone hypothesis in all three of their papers, despite their admission that “we have no direct evidence.”

Their work notes many other potential causes of these spurs: general poor posture “while sitting, standing, or sleeping,” “bike riding using drop hand-bars,” or “sleeping supine with a high pillow.” The authors dismiss the latter two because they’re not new to society. But, again, there’s no definitive evidence that these spur growths are a new phenomenon, either. Maybe people who ride bikes with drop bars and prefer a high pillow are just prone to these spurs, and we’ve been living this way for generations with no serious consequences.

Even if these spurs are becoming more common, we don’t actually know why, though screen use would certainly be a tidy, convenient explanation. But a key piece of this puzzle that’s currently missing is what drives these growths, and without data linking X-rays and people’s habits, we simply don’t know. And that’s hard work to do. If we do suspect screen time is the culprit, the easiest method might be to X-ray people, ask about their daily screen use habits, and then observe their posture while looking at a phone. That would provide more convincing, although still not knockdown, evidence linking the growths to screen time specifically.

If you’ve got a spur: cool! Your body is doing what it’s best at: adapting to the stressors you put it through, whatever they may be. As long as it’s not bothering you, you’re fine, and you now have a built-in answer to those “share one interesting fact about yourself” warmup exercises we all dread.

And if you’re worried? The takeaways are the things you already know you should be doing but probably don’t: mind your posture and moderate your screen use. But that’s not terribly catchy, is it?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.