Smartphones Aren't Causing Us to Grow Horns: When Bad Science Goes Viral

Australian researchers suggested that poor posture is causing serious physiological changes to our skulls, but the research isn't complete.
Jessica Miley

Extensive use of smartphones and electronic devices might be changing our bone structure. But it also might not be. 

New research from the University of Queensland suggests that young people are developing a bone spur on the back of their skulls, caused by the increased prevalence of looking down.

Research needs more hard data

However since the research went viral, other experts have weighed in suggesting the research is lacking substance.

The paper titled, Prominent exostosis projecting from the occipital squama more substantial and prevalent in young adult than older age groups, contains some very basic scientific errors according to PBS journalist Nsikan Akpan.

For a start the research doesn't actually measure the smartphone use of any of its study participants.  The researchers explain that to hold our heads up, we mainly use muscles located in the spine, but looking down causes this to shift the muscles at the back of the skull.


The study suggests that prolonged periods of this posture might  be causing a buildup in the tendons and ligaments that hold the head up - in the same way; you develop a callus on your foot or hand from repeated movements.

This may be true but this study is defintley not proving it scientifically.

While bad science going viral is never a good thing, what might be worst about this story is that a well-respected academic journal such as Scientitfc Reports published the weak study.

Peer reviewed journal should have spotted errors

Scientific Reports is published by Nature Research, is one of the world's leading science publishers.  Most Scientific Reports papers are reviewed by three other people with knowledge of the topic before it is approved for publication. This is  meant to safeguard against poor research and mistruths.

It is unclear in the situation who reviewed the paper as it is against Nature Research’s editorial policy to reveal their names. Scientific Reports responded to PBS's request for clarification saying:

“We are looking into issues regarding this paper and we will take action where appropriate. When any concerns are raised with Scientific Reports about papers we have published, we investigate them carefully following established procedures, but we cannot comment on the specific editorial history of a particular paper published in the journal."

Idea sounds feasible but also headline worthy

The researchers of the article argue that humans are spending more time in a contorted or hunched position over their device's screens and that there is a link between this suspected bone growth and the use of devices.

This sounds very plausable but for scientis to make such a bold claim they need to have numbers, images and other data to support it.