The 'Teenagers Have Horns from Cell Phone Use' Controversy

It’s been interesting to me this week to see a whole online kerfuffle about a recent study linking a troubling incidence of bone spurs at the back of teens’ skulls to extensive use of devices. Here is the original article from the Washington Post: Horns are Growing in Young People’s Skulls: Research Suggests Phone Use Is To Blame. How’s that for an attention-grabbing headline?

The backlash was immediate - reaction pieces cited “dumb tech hysteria” and said the authors of the study did not have sufficient cause to link to phone use (here’s Time Magazine’s take) because the study is based on looking back at X-rays taken in the past, lacks a control group and cannot prove cause and effect. The bony protrusion in the back (or “horn”) occurs when the ligament that keeps the head balanced on top of the spine is repeatedly taxed because the head is pulling forward and down - which often happens when someone leans over a small device at length - and rubs against the skull, causing a bump over time. This used to be seen more widely as people aged and “stooped over” - now it’s seen more frequently in adolescents than in elders.

I for one am delighted this story is gaining traction - there are two major takeaways that connect to my daily work as an Alexander Technique teacher. First, as a spine specialist from the NY Times response piece states, the horn is not the main event here:

“…a more worrisome finding of the study, from angles measured on the X-rays, was that some of the subjects’ necks had settled into an abnormally bent posture.

If technology is causing that postural change across the population, Dr. Johnson said, “It’s not a small thing. We may see more and younger arthritic changes in the neck and disc degeneration and more tension in the neck.”

David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health, said the connection between a bent neck and the bone spurs seemed real. And he said the growing bones of adolescents were more likely than those of adults to change shape or form spurs in response to increased forces.

So takeaway #1: our Alexander Technique principle of how we USE ourselves affects our FUNCTIONING is heavily in play here. We can now literally see physiological changes in young people’s bodies from many hours daily spent hunched over (mostly likely over devices, but could be for any reason.) As the parent of a 10 year-old, I know well what that looks like, and it saddens me to think this is the legacy of our young people if we can’t offer some education about this issue. So we can consider that our daily postural habits can either detract from our health, as we see in this case, or can support wellbeing, at any age.

Takeaway #2: In all these articles, “mindfulness” of the habit is suggested as the fastest, most effective way to combat this problem. And how do we learn to do that? Why, fortunately the Alexander Technique teaches us that skill! Right now, today, you can seek out an AmSAT-certified AT teacher near you to begin to become aware of your own habits. Or you can take a mindfulness moment here: are you leaning toward the screen to read this? Allow your back to release back in space, and your spine to lengthen through its natural curves. Notice the relationship of the two ends of your body - let your head be balanced over your feet (or sitting bones, if you are sitting), rather than pulling out in front of your body. If you are standing, this may bring your balance back up and over your heels a bit more than it was. Let your breath move out and return, and your gaze soften and open to the periphery rather than narrowing in on the screen. Let your shoulders soften and widen. In AT, we learn to periodically check in with ourselves throughout our day, and to redirect into more optimal and balanced posture. So next time you are using your phone - and of course we’ll be using our phones, we love our phones! - you can enjoy it more, and ache from it less.

Sounds like a win to me - thanks to the authors of this study for bringing this topic into public conversation!

© 2014 Eleanor Taylor. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.