No, Your Kid Isn't Growing Horns Because Of Cellphone Use

from the another-moral-techno-panic dept

This week, the Washington Post grabbed plenty of attention for a story that claimed that kids are actually growing "horns" because of cell phone use. The story, which leans on 2016 and 2018 research out of Australia, was cribbing off of this more nuanced piece by the BBC on how skeletal adaptation to modern living changes are kind of a thing. The Post's more inflammatory take was accompanied by a wide variety of other stories proclaiming that today's children are growing horns and bone spurs because they use their durn cellphones too much!

The Washington Post put it this way, with an accompanying, scary X-Ray pulled from the initial research:

"What we have not yet grasped is the way the tiny machines in front of us are remolding our skeletons, possibly altering not just the behaviors we exhibit but the bodies we inhabit. New research in biomechanics suggests that young people are developing hornlike spikes at the back of their skulls — bone spurs caused by the forward tilt of the head, which shifts weight from the spine to the muscles at the back of the head, causing bone growth in the connecting tendons and ligaments."

The problem is that while the research did find that human skeletons are shifting and changing in the modern era due to postural and other behaviors, they weren't able to prove that cellphones were the culprit. There's a wide variety of modern human behaviors that could influence skeletal shifts, from watching television and reading books to terrible posture resulting from a lack of meaningful exercise. Only a few reporters could be bothered to note that at no point did the researchers directly, actually link the "horns" to cellphone use. In fact, technology isn't even mentioned in the source data:

"The researchers don’t mention technology or smartphones at all in their 2018 research, but they do make a statement in the discussion section of their 2016 paper. They make an educated guess that the prevalence of enthesophytes may have to do with “the increased use of hand-held technologies from early child-hood."

Their 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."

As journalist Caroline Haskins notes, the whole hysteria is reminiscent of the "smartphone pinky" scare that bubbled up a few years ago, which proclaimed that people's fingers were being "deformed" by the way they hold their electronic gadgets and smartphones. And it's tangentially related to the recent panic over the recent "Momo" hoax, which proclaimed that a viral game making the rounds on services like WhatsApp and YouTube involved a demonic-looking chicken lady goading young children into acts of violence or even suicide.

We love a good moral panic. And such panics often go viral because Americans are (if that hadn't been made clear in recent years) immeasurably susceptible to bullshit. But it's a problem made so much worse by a media that can't just focus on the amazing science and technology news and issues of the day, but instead quickly falls prey to nonsensical bullshit to generate additional ad revenue. And because the debunking stories see a quarter (or less) of the attention of the original inflammatory reports ("A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes," as the old saying goes), there's a huge chunk of the public walking around with fluff and nonsense in their heads where factual data should be.

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Filed Under: horns, mobile phones, moral panic, technology

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Jun 2019 @ 1:39pm


    Seems to be stating its own fact not included in the research.

    No, it's stating that the study doesn't prove that claim. The burden of proof is on the party making the claim.

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