Just how far will we go for the perfect picture? With Instagram being the bellwether of our social standing these days, turns out a lot of us will do just about anything. Stories of people skydiving, swimming with sharks, or bungee jumping qualify as the death-defying stunts people will do to pull a few likes. But among those potentially fatal activities, taking a selfie doesn’t really seem like the dangerous part, as it shouldn’t, right? Not exactly. People have progressively put themselves in questionable positions for the perfect pic and it’s finally having grave consequences.
The first ever death by selfie happened on October 15, 2011. Three teenage girls got into the perfect selfie position on a track right near a passing train. We all know how hard it is to squeeze three people into a photo, especially in 2011 when our screens were significantly smaller. In getting poised to snap the pic, the three were completely unaware that another train was coming from the opposite direction. The youngest of the three managed to post the image along with a status update on Facebook reading “Standing right by a train ahaha this is awesome!!!!” only moments before the tragedy.
This incident marked the emergence of a new cause of death, death by the selfie.
Another incident occurred on October 26, 2018. A young couple fell to their death while attempting to take a selfie on a cliff at Yosemite National Park. Meenakshi “Minaxi” Moorthy and Vishnu Viswanath were travel bloggers who ran the Instagram account holidaysandhappilyeverafters. They were found 800 feet down the side of Taft Point after visitors alerted the authorities about seeing a camera and a tripod on the edge of the cliff.
Ironically, the couple posted a photo seven months prior, March 28 to be exact, of Meenakshi sitting on the edge of rock over the Grand Canyon with the caption, “A lot of us including yours truly is a fan of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers . . . Is our life just worth one photo?”
The couple’s death was a tragedy but theirs were just two of the many selfie-related deaths that have already happened worldwide. As of 2018, there have been more than 250 deaths while taking selfies reported. According to the study conducted by researchers associated with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, out of all the selfie-related deaths, the leading cause was drowning, followed by incidents involving transportation, and falling from heights.
“The selfie deaths have become a major public health problem,” said Dr. Agam Bansal, the study’s lead author.
Common sense dictates we stay away from potentially life-threatening situations and yet, we find photos of individuals on top of skyscrapers, on train tracks, or on the edge of cliffs. So why, despite our better sense, do we risk our lives for posts?
According to Zlatan Krizan, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, this behavior has something to do with the concept coined competitive “social comparison.” The term means that people are likely to compare themselves with others and try to outdo them by posting photos in order to create the illusion that their lives are more interesting.
“There’s this general phenomenon where we raise the bar for ourselves of what would be a fun selfie to take and share with others,” Krizan said. “Nobody wants to be outdone.” Because of this, people may engage in dangerous situations aiming to get an interesting selfie.
Researchers Agam Bansal, Chandan Garg, Abhijith Pakhare and Samiksha Gupta in their study titled Selfies: A boon or bane? stated that the deaths are most likely driven by the desire to get more likes on social media.
“It is rewarding for individuals seeing the number of likes and positive comments,” the researchers stated. “This further influences them to post unique pictures which may also involve indulging in risky behavior to click selfies.”
Unique photos tend to get a lot of likes and people who get a lot of responses (likes, comments, and shares) from their posts on social media tend to feel more supported by their online social network.
The study also states that selfies are not an official cause of death. Thus the true magnitude of the problem is underestimated and under-reported.
Of course, our self-esteem is not the only reason why people attempt dangerous stunts. Some do it to go viral in the hopes of establishing themselves as an influencer.
Wu Yongjing, a social media star in China was popular for posting videos while he was “rooftopping.” This involved the unsecured, and most of the time illegal, the ascent of rooftops, cranes, and antennas. On November 2017, he fell to his death while attempting to perform pull-ups off the side of a skyscraper. Since Wu films all of his stunts, the terrifying ordeal was even caught on camera which gained over 15 million views on YouTube before it was removed.
Another influencer who asked to keep her name undisclosed admitted that companies would sponsor “rooftoppers.” According to local Chinese media Beijing News, Wu was offered 100,000 Yuan to produce a viral video, money he accepted to finance his upcoming wedding.
In 2015, the Russian government launched a “Safe Selfie” campaign aiming to raise awareness on the dangers of taking photos in unsafe areas with the campaign motto being, “Even a million ‘likes’ on social media are not worth your life and well-being.” A booklet with icons of selfie scenarios, such as taking a photo in front of an oncoming train, holding a loaded firearm and being on top of a skyscraper, was issued to the public. Russian police officers would also hold selfie-safety lessons in schools to ensure the safety of young people.
Researchers of the Selfies: A boon or bane? study concluded by recommending the issuance of “no selfie zones” on popular tourist spots to reduce the risk of selfie-related deaths and several countries have already complied.
“Selfies are themselves not harmful, but the human behavior that accompanies selfies is dangerous,” Dr. Agam Bansal, one of the researchers from the India Institute of Medical Sciences stated. “Individuals need to be educated regarding certain risky behaviors and risky places where selfies should not be taken.”
We should always consider our safety first before taking a photograph. You might not get thousands of likes and followers but, hey, you’re alive!