Will Children Really Grow Horns From Too Much Phone Use?

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We probably don't have to worry about a generation of horned children. Anatolii Mazhora/Shutterstock

If you don't put that phone down, you'll grow horns.

That's the kind of warning you might expect from parents looking to frighten kids into more fruitful pursuits. It's a reminder, perhaps of their own childhood when a line like, "Get your finger out of your nose or it'll get stuck there" went a long way toward scaring them straight.

The thing is, an Australian study suggests kids are actually growing horns. And it's scientists who may be scaring us all straight — literally, to make us work on our posture.

Because, as researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast, noted in a study in Scientific Reports, consistent habits — like hunching over a phone — sends a signal to the body that it needs to adapt.

Bone Spurs

In this case, the body's response is bone spurs. Analyzing X-rays from 1,200 people between the ages of 18 and 86, the researchers zeroed in on a bony nub at the back of the skull called an external occipital protuberance, or EOP. That nub, they noted, can became enlarged — even triceratops-like — from trauma or the way we hold our heads.

A man bent over holding his back in pain.
An enlarged EOP may be the result of anything from trauma to poor posture. BigBlueStudio/Shutterstock

As a result the scientists sounded a dire warning for head-tilting, screen-staring future generations.

"We hypothesise that the use of modern technologies and hand-held devices may be primarily responsible for these postures and subsequent development of adaptive robust cranial features in our sample," they noted in the study.

It wouldn't just be cellphones that are bedeviling us. Even more lo-fi pursuits like reading a book could spur those bones and enlarge that EOP — conceivably resulting in horned children.

You would think, however, if the body is offering a physiological response to a growing habit, it would at least give us something useful. Maybe sticky ears for mounting the phone directly. Or at least a chin that curls upward and cradles a tablet for effortless Netflix and chilling.

Debunked Study

But horns? Is the body trying to shame us?

Well, probably not. In fact, although the study has gained renewed traction with recent reports from the likes of the BBC and the Washington Post, it's been met with a chorus of scientific criticism. Indeed, for scientists, the study itself — a sequel to earlier research by the same authors — doesn't add up.

For one thing, as The New York Times notes, it's deeply flawed from a methodology standpoint. There's no control group, it doesn't show cause and effect, and those X-rays were taken from past research.

Besides, the fact that being hunched over something — anything — would contribute to neck strain and maybe even bone spurs isn't much of a stretch. Ask an ancient basket weaver or a Franciscan friar bent over his rosary how that feels. You would think a monk with devil horns running around in the Middle Ages would draw some attention.

So why all the attention now for an old study that's been pretty thoroughly debunked? Well, besides the fact that it involves children growing horns, there's that age-old charm of being able to scare kids into being better citizens.

Or, as paleoanthropologist John Hawks puts it:

"For many who are clicking and sharing, the idea of hidden effects from phones just reinforces a moral panic over screen time. Depending on who you ask, young people's use of cell phones is creating a generation of deviants, killing the art of conversation, and leading to addiction."

In other words, get your finger out of your nose, your elbows off the table — and put that phone away!