Flawed Study Linking Smartphone Use and Horn Growth Prompts Skeletal Review

debunked research blamed smartphone use for horn growth in youth

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A study blaming smartphones for kids growing horns is flawed, according to Business Insider. The study, published in Scientific Reports in 2018, suggested the downward-facing head posture of cell phone use led to hornlike bone spurs growing from the back of the head. Maybe it’s time to review the skeletal system.

Doctor and nurse looking at skull x ray
A general review explains the functions of the human skeletal system and how bones form. Photo by Shine Nucha / Shutterstock

It appeared as though websites were preparing for war last week when sites like Business Insider, Smithsonian, CNET, Forbes, AOL, and Gizmodo cried foul on a story initially reported in The Washington Post, Fortune, Fox News, Rolling Stone, and several other sources. The story claimed that the prevalence of cranial bone protrusions in young people was linked to how their heads were positioned during cell phone use. These growths loosely resemble horns in a condition referred to in the Fox News story as “text neck.” Medical professionals were quick to point out the flaws in the study, but judging by the reporters and members of the public who were taken in by the story, a look back at the human skeletal structure may be in order.

Functions of the Skeletal System

“The primary functions of the skeletal system include movement, in conjunction with the muscle attachments; support of the body; and then physical protection of the internal organs,” said Dr. Anthony A. Goodman, Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Montana State University and Affiliate Professor in the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Additionally, our bones are both production houses and storage containers. “We have in our bones something called red marrow, which produces red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and the macrophages,” Dr. Goodman said. “We also have a huge, huge mass for mineral storage. We need varying amounts of calcium and magnesium and phosphorous in our system all the time, so what the body does is put them in the bones.” He also pointed out that the bones have room to store lipids, or fats, often in the shaft of the bone.

Bone Growth, Sans Smartphones

Ruling out portable electronics use, how do bones actually develop? At the outset, the bone is simply cartilage, of which our noses are composed. “This is the very beginning of the development of the embryologic bone,” Dr. Goodman said. “Cartilage is a soft, waxy material. It is either the precursor of bone or can be the end of a bone where two bones join.” Next, he said, at the center of the shaft of cartilage, several tiny hollow areas form. “These tend to spread up and down the bone, a nutrient artery develops, and we get the separation of real hardened solid bone.”

According to Dr. Goodman, while the matrix of hollow areas multiplies and spreads, the nutrient artery feeds the bone everything it needs to grow. More on that process in a moment. Jumping ahead, the bone eventually resembles the shape we all recognize: a long and narrow shaft called the diaphysis, two rounded ends each called an epiphysis, and the widening area between the shaft and the end which is called the metaphysis. So how do we get from hardening cartilage to that classic bone shape?

“One thing that’s very important here is that we have something called the epiphyseal plate,” Dr. Goodman said. “It’s the border between the end of the metaphysis and the beginning of the epiphysis above.” The epiphyseal plate, he said, is the only place in which bone growth occurs once things have started to solidify. “It happens off this plate advancing in an upward direction, laying more and more of this cancellous or trabeculated bone and then pushing up and making the diaphysis longer.”

The jury is still out regarding cellular phone usage and its long-term effects on the human body, but for now, human physiology doesn’t suggest that screen time is causing horns to grow out of the backs of our heads.

Dr. Anthony A. Goodman contributed to this article. Dr. Goodman is Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Montana State University and Affiliate Professor in the Department of Biological Structure at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He earned his B.A. from Harvard College and his M.D. from Cornell Medical College.