Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Don’t worry, we’re not actually sprouting horns from phone overuse – here’s the proof

This week it was reported that the skulls of young people were sprouting 'horns' as a consequence of using mobile devices. But here's why we can relegate that theory to the pile of other tech-fuelled panics we've been fed over the years: from text neck to texting thumb

We're probably not about to start looking like this because we use our phones too much. Getty.
We're probably not about to start looking like this because we use our phones too much. Getty.

It can sometimes seem as if technology’s sole purpose is to create a permanent state of anxiety. From concern over the strength of electromagnetic fields to worries about the intensity of light emitting from our screens, we’re ready and waiting for news that our behaviour is bad for us.

Last week presented the perfect example, as it was breathlessly reported that the skulls of young people were sprouting “horns” as a consequence of using mobile devices. It was a textbook technological panic; an old study, done by researchers with unknown motives, was dug up, given a provocative spin by the media and unquestioningly swallowed by people who always suspected that mobile phones were evil. Many parents will have ended last week warning their kids that if they don’t put their phones down, they’ll grow horns. (They won’t.)

But in case anyone was still concerned about their offspring transforming into rhinoceroses overnight, here’s a calm assessment. Last year in Queensland, Australia, two researchers studied X-rays from 218 young adults, and found that 41 per cent of them had a slightly larger “external occipital protuberance”, a small bone at the back of the head, just above the spine. This, the researchers believed, was a greater number than would normally be expected in that age group, and went on to suggest that the reason for this might well be down to “extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets,” and they recommended “posture improvement education” as a remedy.

The paper would have gone unnoticed by the wider world had it not been referenced in a calmly written BBC News article about the ways our skeletons may be affected by modern behaviour. But within a week, a small statistical anomaly had transformed into the horns of the devil.

The rebuttals came shortly after, although they could never hope of reaching the same audience as the original claims. Beth Mole, health reporter at the website Ars Technica, noted a number of things about the research. Firstly that its lead author, David Shahar, who also goes by the name “Dr Posture®” online, offers the “posture improvement education” that the paper recommends, while also selling special “Thoracic Pillows®” for 740 Australian dollars (Dh1885) each. She also noted that the subjects of the study weren’t necessarily representative of the wider population (given that they’d had neck X-rays at a chiropractic clinic) and that the connection between the bone tissue and mobile phone use was entirely presumptuous, with no data offered to prove a link.

Electricity caused consternation in the 19th century as homes were connected to the grid.

“If you electrify homes you will make women and children vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them.”

- Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research

Mobile devices are bound to have some kind of effect on our minds and bodies. But over time, as human beings change their behaviour, they adapt to changing circumstances, so even if the protrusions identified by Shaher and his colleague are what they claim they are, that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

“We're doing whatever we need to do to cope with this additional stress on our skulls because we're looking down all the time,” said bone biologist Natalie Sims to the website CNet. “To call this a degenerative change, I think is not helpful, and probably not accurate."

Back in January, The National addressed the “moral panic” surrounding the amount of time people spend using phone and tablets, and the question of whether screens are inherently bad for our mental health. Those same concerns exist for physical health, but as Oxford University’s Amy Orben said to us at the time, they’re affected by a very modern phenomena: “Technophiles finding positive effects and technophobes finding negative effects in exactly the same data.”

Calm, measured assessments are clearly needed, but the scientists who reach conclusions and the media who report them are not always best placed to offer such assessments, given our eagerness to embrace tech-fuelled panic.

As Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, reminds us, electricity caused consternation in the 19th century as homes were connected to the grid.

“If you electrify homes you will make women and children vulnerable,” she wrote. “Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them.”

We’re seeing similar panics in the 21st century, but they’re exacerbated by three things: the speed of change, the sense that the change is being imposed upon us, and the viral nature of sensational claims regarding those changes. It’s safe to say that if we find ourselves worrying about the effects of technology, it’s because someone, somewhere, is benefiting from that worry.

In 2011, a chiropractor in Florida described the strain on the vertebrae when using mobile devices as “Text Neck”, and stated it to be a “global epidemic”. That was later debunked. Getty.
In 2011, a chiropractor in Florida described the strain on the vertebrae when using mobile devices as “Text Neck”, and stated it to be a “global epidemic”. That was later debunked. Getty.

Other tech-fuelled panics we probably shouldn't worry about

Text Neck

Our heads weigh around 5kg, but tilted forward they can exert a more significant force on the spine. Back in 2011, a chiropractor in Florida, Dean Fishman, described the strain on the vertebrae when using mobile devices as “Text Neck”, and stated it to be a “global epidemic”.

He also set up the “Text Neck Institute” to treat the condition. Last year, a study in Brazil found no association between neck pain and phone use.

Momo Challenge

A creepy picture of a sculpture created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso struck fear into the hearts of parents, as concern spread worldwide that the appearance of the character on the internet could induce children to harm themselves. The debunking website Snopes brackets the Momo Challenge with “the products of fevered imaginations and lurid news reporting, rather than real-life phenomena”.

Texting thumb

Every day, billions of words are typed out using our thumbs, and it would be unusual if that change in behaviour had had no physiological effect. For some people it resulted in pain which was dubbed “texting thumb”, and there was a suggestion that it may lead to arthritis.

But similar concerns were voiced years earlier about Nintendo games and Blackberry keyboards, and there is no arthritic epidemic. The advice is simple: if you’re doing a particular movement too much and it’s causing pain, do a different movement.

Hallucinogenic Virtual Reality

Back in 2016, the use of the word “hallucination” in an official Microsoft blog post prompted news outlets to report that the company was developing forms of virtual reality that were hallucinogenic “in the same way as LSD”.

Virtual reality expert Catherine Allen has described such moral panic as inevitable, based on an underlying fear “that our bodies will become irrelevant slabs of flesh, existing purely for the purpose of keeping our brains alive.” She concludes: “When you see a story about virtual reality, don't forget to question what you read.”

Updated: June 25, 2019 11:00 AM

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