Kids growing horns on their heads? Don’t panic.
By MOLLY ROBERTS | The Washington Post | Published: June 21, 2019
Kids are growing horns on their heads, and guess what? It’s technology’s fault.
They’re not exactly horns, to be clear. Technically they’re enlarged external occipital protuberances, and slightly less technically, they’re bone spurs — brought on by weight shifting from the spine to the base of the skull, which happens over and over again when you’re living life tethered to a miniature screen. But bone spurs are boring and routine, while horns are the stuff of animals. They’re the stuff of the devil himself, if you want to get dramatic about it.
Horns, in other words, make for a much better metaphor: Technology is turning us into monsters.
The hornlike formation protruding from young adults these days, a scientist told The Washington Post, is “a portent of something nasty going on elsewhere.” He means a physical misalignment, but “portent” and “nasty” are wonderfully ominous words to describe the general sense of doom that has overcome the population lately when it comes to technology.
There’s the surveillance capitalism that motivates technology companies to track users across the Web, and there are the actual surveillance states that harness facial recognition tools to repress (and ethnically profile) their citizens. There’s the trend of radicalization that has encouraged multiple mass shooters in the past 12 months alone. There’s the spread of misinformation that has Americans living in worlds governed by what they see as completely separate sets of facts.
Look at the past week, starting with those potentially horned children. The government, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, is investigating YouTube for hoovering up children’s data, plus failing to protect them from corrosive content such as popular cartoon character Peppa Pig smoking marijuana or tips on committing suicide. That kind of content threatens not just toddlers who watch, but the people who try to protect them: Contract moderators at Facebook, tasked with taking down some of the most vile material on the web, are suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the Verge recently reported.
Meanwhile, frenzied debate raged over the seemingly minor topic of Harvard rescinding the admission of would-have-been attendee Kyle Kashuv for typing the n-word 11 times in all caps on a Google Doc to show off how cool racism is to his friends. Kashuv is a one-time employee of Turning Point USA, itself famous for running a website with a factually challenged “watch list” of professors who purportedly “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It’s McCarthyism, but for the Internet!
You get the idea: The Internet is evil. But what’s truly alarming about these problems is that it’s not only the Internet causing them. It’s us. We’re the ones who are clicking on crazy stuff. We’re the ones who would rather argue endlessly over whether the words “concentration camp” are sacrosanct than focus on the immigrants dying in detention. We’re addicts, and the Internet has given us more to get addicted to more easily. We’re prone to radicalization, and the Internet has made it ever so easy to reach the radicalizers. We’re polarized, and the Internet has set up all sorts of magnets to push us further apart.
Maybe the instant-sharing mechanism of that Google Doc encouraged Kashuv to write the n-word all those times, or maybe without a computer he just would have said it out loud. True, Harvard probably would never have known, but would that be better?
Horns, in our cultural canon, are a material manifestation of something within. They’re part of us. These gadgets and services that we call technology today were always supposed to be life-changing, but they were supposed to turn us into superheroes — not transform us into Marvel-style villains, complete with devil-like head growths to signal our corruption. Yet now we have horns, and we can’t just saw them off our heads. All we can do, according to researchers interviewed by The Post, is develop “coping mechanisms” to reduce that spine-to-skull friction.
Of course, we can’t develop coping mechanisms for the Internet if we’re too busy panicking. At least one scientist has already questioned the accuracy of the horns research, but that doesn’t decrease its allure. Much as horns make for a much better metaphor, they make for a much better headline, a reality that itself is indicative of our Internet-era malady. Sensationalism, or whatever else keeps people staring at those screens, wins.
When something is scary, it’s difficult to focus on anything but the scary stuff. When there are horns growing on people’s heads, there’s little incentive to talk about legislating privacy for the digital age or tweaking algorithms away from extremism. There’s also little incentive to talk about the good things the Internet brought along, and how to preserve them. Most all of, there’s an excuse not to examine the even scarier ways in which the Web only amplifies who the people and societies using it already are. We can worry about horns all we like, but we should make sure we’re figuring out how to tame the beast — not feeding it instead.
Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.