When Selfies Kill

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dimitar Atanasov.

Community Week: When Selfies Kill

by Brittany Tedesco | Theme Week | Mar 8, 2016

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People die for all sorts of reasons, but would you ever expect it from the simple act of taking a selfie? It sounds like a joke, but selfies are becoming an increasingly serious cause of death. Last year, more people died from selfie-related incidents than from shark attacks.

So far, 2016 is showing little improvement with countless deaths and injuries to humans and animals alike—all from the self-centered snapshot.

Just last month, a rare baby dolphin died after vacationers in Argentina pulled it from the water to take selfies with it. Similarly, a Florida beach-dweller dragged a young bull shark from the waters of Palm Beach to take a selfie with it, and officials are still unsure if the shark survived after being released back into the ocean.

These are just a few examples of how people are going to drastic measures for (possibly) a cool Instagram photo. We are endangering wild animals by taking them out of their natural habitats, just to take a selfie. However, animals are not the only ones at risk. Humans are putting their own lives and the lives of those around them in danger.

A majority of selfie-related deaths have been a result of falling, whether it be from cliffs, bridges, or buildings, followed by getting hit or injured by trains. It’s not just from the trains themselves, but the dangerous wires and equipment around them. People are so focused on crafting the perfect shot to even realize the dangers around them.

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University, tells BTRtoday that people are not considering these shocking consequences.

“The human brain can hyper-focus on a task,” Rutledge explains. “When we do this we literally don’t see the other things around us, like signposts and curbs. Because we aren’t aware of this, we don’t anticipate it.”

As a part of our visual culture, we draw attention through images. In order to create something new, something that hasn’t been seen or done before, that often requires taking risks. With it’s growing popularity, the “selfie” calls for more extreme photos, each upstaging the last, which is exactly why selfies are becoming increasingly more outrageous.

Michael Dwyer, professor of media and communications at Arcadia University spoke to BTRtoday to help explain the dangerous, digital craze.

“When you constantly see other people sharing attractive, interesting, exciting content, that cultivates the idea that everyone is always living these wholly fulfilling and Instagram-able lives,” Dwyer describes. “So we share in order to ensure everyone that we know and want to impress that we’re just as exciting as they are.”

People want to show their followers that they are just as exciting, if not more exciting than everyone else. The root of this issue lies in the willingness to get that close to a bull-shark or the edge of a cliff for the approval of other people.

However, selfies are also about avoiding risks, whether it is the risk of talking to another person to ask them to take your picture or the risk of someone else taking your picture when you are not at your best. Online communication in general has become a very common way to avoid risk, and it’s taking over real, authentic interactions.

BTRtoday talks to Liraz Margalit, a Web psychologist and Director of Behavioral analytics at ClickTale, about how technology has taken over these authentic aspects of our lives. Margalit compares online communication to a virtual war game.

“When playing a computer war game, for example, we can experience excitement, frustration and tension, but we can never be injured,” Margalit describes. “In the same way, interactions via social media make visitors feel connected without the difficulties and complexities involved in face-to-face interactions.”

Dr. Michelle Drouin is a developmental psychologist who specializes in online relationships. She describes virtual self-presentation to BTRtoday as a desire to also build online relationships.

“It’s all about gaining social capital, gaining friends, gaining followers, gaining people who appreciate the you that you are depicting online.” She explains, “It isn’t just about me depicting myself. You are using these images to form relationships based on the persona that you’re projecting.”

These virtual interactions allow us to portray ourselves how we wish to be perceived, which has both positive and negative effects. Selfies especially allow us to to depict a vision of ourselves for others to see, which can often give us a more positive image of ourselves. Except that often it is an idealized version, and not the real thing. It is easier for us to manage our self-presentation online, much more than it is in face-to-face environments.

“People can seem as exotic or exciting or adventurous as they want online, even if that doesn’t really depict their offline self,” Drouin describes. “You take as many pictures as you can until you get the picture that you think is depicting the best you.”

Through these images, we can be whoever we want to be by using the best lighting, the most flattering angle, the prettiest backdrop, or the funniest actions. It is all to be noticed and appreciated.

A recent survey from Luster Premium White calculated that respondents took an average of nine selfies a week and averaged the amount of time needed per selfie at seven minutes, which adds up to over 50 hours a year wasted on taking selfies.

A large part of the lure may be in being a part of something greater by joining a sort of online social community. People want to feel connected all the time, and by posting the perfect Instagram photo, people are seeking the attention of their followers.

A survey sponsored by the website “FeelUnique” found that of the 2,000 people asked, most agreed that “likes” were their main reason for their selfies. Some said that they used selfies to impress potential love interests, and others used their selfies as attempts to make an ex regret ending the relationship.

The more unique and exciting a post is, the more activity it will usually get. People are overlooking the potential damage that could be done because they are more concerned with receiving this acceptance from others.

“Sometimes people say the word ‘community’ and think that it automatically means it’s good, but communities can be destructive and unhealthy, too,” says Dwyer. “People’s attachment to one another can be used to exploit them. We should ask ourselves if the communities we participate in, online and off, are good for us. Do they make us smarter, kinder, better? Or do they make us more cruel, more judgmental, and less sophisticated?”

Dwyer further explains that selfies are now part of corporate business models. Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, all these social media platforms would not have any content if it weren’t for its uses sharing all sorts of mundane details of their every day lives, all for free. We see other people doing it so we do it too, and that’s how things like selfies get trending to keep these platforms running.

“A significant portion of people have been trained to behave in this way–by their friends and peers, of course, but also through social media corporations who profit immensely from user data,” says Dwyer. “If we didn’t post content, they don’t have a business model. We all work for them, they make the profits, and we don’t get paid.”

Corporate interests feed off of our innate desire to be socially validated. Our selfies are like modern-day self-portraits, and these social media platforms are our way to exhibit them.

However, since people started taking their selfies to new extremes, places all over the world are banning selfies, or at least selfie sticks, to prevent injuries.

Disney, for example, had originally banned selfie sticks from rides due to the fear it could come in contact with a ride’s mechanism, but now selfie sticks are banned entirely from all Disney theme parks over safety concerns. Guests are now asked to leave their selfie sticks at the parks’ entrances to pick up on their way out. Additionally, a number of football clubs, the National Gallery, and the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club in Wimbledon have also banned the sticks. Even Apple banned them from audiences attending its annual WWDC developers conference, held in the US earlier this month.

As more injuries occur due to selfies, various places and events are also beginning to set up “no selfie zones.”

For example, Waterton Canyon park in Denver, Colorado, closed access to the public because visitors were getting too close to bears in order to take selfies with them. Similarly, the state of New York has set up a law banning the popular trend of taking selfies with tigers or big cats by saying people are no longer allowed to take photos near dangerous animals at zoos, circuses, and carnivals.

Russia has also set up a “Safe Selfie Campaign” posting signs as precautions against taking dumb and potentially hazardous selfies.

But will these bans really help prevent millennials from taking selfies or will they just see it as more of a challenge? Likely, there will always be people who rebel and find ways around the rules (even ones in place for their own protection), but Dwyer believes these precautions will at least help us put some thought into our social media habits.

“Rules exist to make us aware of our actions, and it’s probably worth thinking how our decisions are made, about selfies or otherwise,” explains Dwyer. “My hope is that thinking about one’s decisions will help people decide to ‘do it for themselves’ rather than for Vine or Instagram, whether you think of those things as groups of ‘followers’ or as massive corporations.”

Drouin agrees, “If they try to prohibit it in some context, people are going to move on to the next context. I think what you really need is a shift in culture where people start wanting to represent their true selves online and not some kind of idealized version.”

So while the ban on selfies might not actually stop anyone from taking them, it is the first step in realizing the extremes millennials go to for the ideal shot. Next time you’re about to take a selfie ask yourself, “Who is this really for?”

Once we realize that we may be too immersed in our smartphones, we can become aware of our surroundings instead of focusing on what “cool” picture we are going to post next.