Are Millennials Really Growing Horns From Using Their Phones?

A paleoanthropologist warns readers to beware of stories that seem too weird to be real

John Hawks
Elemental
Published in
6 min readJun 24, 2019

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AA recent Washington Post headline has people up in arms: “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.” As a professional paleoanthropologist, I’m here to throw some cold water on that claim. The research doesn’t back it up.

The story is about a well-known anatomical feature called the external occipital protuberance. This common trait can often be felt as a bump on the back of the skull, at the middle, just above where the neck muscles attach. Men have it more often than women, so much so that this is one of several traits that help forensic scientists establish whether a skeleton belonged to a male or female individual.

An example of an external occipital protuberance on a Bronze Age skull. Photo: John Hawks

What does this have to do with “horns”? Horns are made of keratin, the same stuff as fingernails. There actually are conditions called keratoses in which fibrous growths of keratin emerge from the skin, including on the face and head. But this story isn’t about horns at all. Instead, the story is about a much more common developmental occurrence: the growth of a small spur of bone from the external occipital protuberance (EOP). The idea is that kids are looking down at their cellphones, causing strain on the back of their skulls, which develop into a bone spur as a result. According to the story, upwards of 40% of young men may have such “extended” external occipital protuberances, a much higher proportion than found in men over 30.

But the research doesn’t hold up.

Many features of the skull develop when adolescents are becoming sexually mature, and the external occipital protuberance is no exception. Such traits that differ between men and women are mostly correlated with the size and muscular development of the head. Bone is living tissue, and it gradually responds to the forces of muscles that attach to it. Bone also responds to hormones, and the relationships between hormones, exercise, and everyday activity are complicated.

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John Hawks
Elemental

Paleoanthropologist. I study human evolution and work to understand the fossil and genetic evidence of our hominin ancestors.