Three young Indian men died earlier this year while trying to take a picture of themselves hanging out of a moving train car. A few days earlier, a man fell nine floors, phone in hand, attempting to snap a photo of himself against the Manilla skyline. The month before that, a plane hit two teenage girls in Mexico as they were trying to film themselves in front of the landing. While these are all tragic individual accidents, people are starting to see a trend.
According to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, selfie deaths are on the rise. Since 2014, more than 127 people have died taking photos of themselves, with casualties increasing by almost 50% from 2015 to 2016, with no signs of slowing down in 2017.
Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, the faculty advisor for the project in India, believes something changes in people’s focus when they are taking a picture of themselves that blocks out the evolutionary warning signs. “People interact with their surroundings differently when they are taking pictures,” he told Highsnobiety. “They get too attached and involved in the locations, so they often forget about things.”
This can become problematic, as certain vantage points and subjects that are worthy of a double tap on IG are not always the safest IRL. The research team found heights, water, moving vehicles, weapons, electricity and animals to be the most fatal combinations for selfies takers, but the selfie that is most likely to kill you depends on your country.
In India, the leading cause of selfie deaths was water, whereas gun photo fatalities were more common in the U.S. and Russia.
A lack of coordination makes taking pictures with firearms especially problematic. “One hand is on the trigger and the other is on the phone,” Kumaraguru said. “Instead of pressing down on the shutter button to take the picture, a lot of people pull the trigger and die.”
Although women have statistically higher selfies rates, men under the age of 25 are most likely to lose their lives over a snapshot.
While social media pressure can shoulder some of the blame, this data is consistent with research in general on risky behavior, which is higher in those whose prefrontal cortexes haven not yet fully developed. This part of the brain fully fleshes out in our mid-twenties.
“You can’t rule out general risk-taking as a factor when looking at these deaths,” Kumaraguru said. “It is most common in teenagers who are generally more adventurous and creative when it comes to different places to take selfies.”
India Is Most at Risk
One of the reasons Carnegie Mellon needs researchers in India is that the country has a disproportionate amount of selfies deaths. Police in India have even declared some parts of the country “no selfies zones” because of the repeat fatalities in these areas.
“One of the explanations people give for the amount of selfies deaths in India is population, but that’s not completely true,” Kumaraguru said. “Other countries with large populations like China don’t even come up there in terms of frequency. We’ve already had 20-25 deaths around the world this year, and the majority are still Indian.”
The New Delhi-based professor points towards cultural attitudes as a possible explanation for the spike in selfies deaths among Indians. “The value of life in India is much less than the value of life in other countries. I’ve lived in the U.S. and Germany, as well as other parts of the world, and have noticed a difference in how people value life,” he said.
“Even in terms of the number of train-related casualties that don’t have to do with selfies, India is leading," he continues. "People around the world travel in trains, but a lot more people die in Mumbai than in other places."
Leave It to the Pros
There is no shortage of inspiration for dangerous selfies on Instagram and Facebook, but what many casual self-snappers fail to realize is that a large portion of gravity-defying shots on Instagram or Facebook come from professional accounts.
“The professionals are mainly from Russia, and they are very well-prepared,” Kumaraguru said. “You see on the YouTube videos how much equipment they carry, the training they get and the exercises they do.”
It turns out that when you are doing acrobatics on the ledges of skyscrapers, equipment, training and exercises matter.
“We haven’t really seen selfie deaths from the professionals. There is a difference between people who take dangerous selfies for a living, and those amateurs whose selfies turn out to be dangerous.”
Too Close to Home
With less than 200 recorded selfie deaths worldwide, it is still unusual to know someone who lost their life in the process, but selfie injuries are all too common.
Although most people are too embarrassed to admit they injured themselves while taking pictures, a quick search of “selfie car crashes” will reveal a long list of photos and videos that show the moment the photos went from inspirational to cautionary. Snapchat favorite Kylie Jenner is among the celebrities who have received flack for the dangerous road selfies.
Rose W., 24, landed herself in the emergency room after a botched selfie attempt. In addition to the distraction of the camera, she was trying to impress a boy.
“I had bought a fancy pane of glass to use as a desk top,” Rose said. “The guy I texted joked that it wouldn’t be sturdy enough for any vigorous activity. But instead of taking him at his word, I tried to take a picture of myself sitting on it to prove him wrong. It held for about three seconds and then shattered underneath me.”
One piece sliced her ankle open, leading to 11 stitches. Luckily it missed her Achilles tendon, and she walked away with nothing worse than a gnarly scar. “I can’t believe I was so stupid,” Rose added. “Every time I tell someone about it, it just sounds worse, but for some reason it seemed okay in the moment.”
Further research is being conducted as to why people put themselves in danger for selfies and what kind of risky behavior reaps the most rewards on social media but, for Kumaraguru, this will remain an aspect of #GramGen life.
“I can only speculate for now, but selfie deaths are linked to the penetration of technology, availability of smartphones, and the craze of social networks. As long as this is the case, people will look to one up each other's photos to gain social currency in the form of followers and likes."
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