Smartphones won’t make millennials sprout horns: Shamed scientists

Smartphones might lead to an increased risk of anxiety, obesity or your vehicle becoming engulfed in flames — but they won’t make you grow horns.

A much-shared 2018 study which claimed that poor posture caused by smartphone and tablet use may be increasing the prevalence of horn-like protrusions at the base of millennial skulls, called “external occipital protuberances,” has been amended by the publisher, Nature Research.

The study went viral after BBC Future featured the authors’ work in a report on how our lifestyle impacts human physiology in June. Related stories were then published in dozens of outlets and shared by tens of thousands social media. At the time, some sources questioned the authors’ assessment of the data, which eventually prompted a deeper review of the study by Nature Research.

In their correction, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, they wrote, “This article contained errors,” then added that the report “contained language that was speculative of the implications of the study” — referring to conjecture by authors, chiropractor Dr. David Shahar and sports biomechanicist Mark Sayers of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, that increased use of mobile technology is leading to the malformation.

Nature Research gave a statement to PBS NewsHour:

“When we became aware of criticisms of this paper, we carefully investigated the concerns raised following an established process. This further assessment of the manuscript, which took additional information into account, revealed that the methodology and data remained valid. It was determined, however, that the paper should be corrected to more accurately represent the study and the conclusions that could be drawn from it.”

In another statement to PBS, Shahar and Sayers said, “We are satisfied with the changes,” and added, “Our novel findings were not changed, and these could have implications for people around the world.”

Even now, some researchers in the field say that the journal has not gone far enough in their clarification because the data still does not support the hypothesis that poor posture and age are linked to these bone spurs.

“I actually think Nature should remove the original article as the correction has not proved their point,” Sara Becker, a bioarchaeologist at the University of California Riverside, told the outlet.

The public news service also contacted the BBC for comment, who said, “If Scientific Reports and Dr. Shahar have now decided to re-evaluate those findings, we will as well.”

Unfortunately, experts say the damage of misinformation has already been done, and will not likely be reversed.

Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor and director at the Center for Computational and Data Science at Syracuse University, told PBS that the study “trades on our assumptions and fears about cellphone use.”

“When we encounter information that is contrary to a story that we have about the world, we tend to discount it. That’s confirmation bias,” she said. “It’s quite hard to dislodge a belief that someone holds.”

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