Death by narcissism: The rise of selfie fatalities

Twenty-nine people have died while taking selfies in 2017. Only five have died in shark attacks

In one week in 2016, four people were admitted to hospital in Galway with ‘selfie wrist’.

In one week in 2016, four people were admitted to hospital in Galway with ‘selfie wrist’.

 

It’s not enough to experience something anymore. It’s not even enough just to experience it through a screen. These days, unless you risked your life getting the picture – unless you hung out over the edge of the cliff, unless you kept your nerve in the face of the oncoming train or the angry mama bear long enough to frame the perfect shot – you weren’t really there.

More people now die in the pursuit of the ultimate selfie than are killed by sharks. So far this year, 29 people have died while taking selfies. By contrast, only five have died in shark attacks.

Hospitals have seen a surge in the numbers of people presenting with injuries sustained while taking a selfie. In a single week last summer, four people were admitted to University College Hospital Galway (UCHG) with what doctors call the “selfie wrist” – a broken wrist sustained while taking a photo of themselves on their mobile. Invariably, they broke their non-dominant wrist – even as they fell, they knew enough to protect their phone.

'He died doing what he loved,' went the headline on a local news site, apparently without even a hint of irony

One of the injured was a 40-year-old woman, who fell when she took a couple of steps backwards at a well known tourist attraction and fell onto some rocks, doctors from UCHG write in the current issue of the Irish Medical Journal.

Another was a 17-year-old girl, who was running up steps while taking a selfie. In their paper, the doctors recommend that selfie injuries are added to hospital admission forms to help gather data on the extent of the problem, and that more is done to raise awareness of the risks.

“The consequences of poorer spatial awareness and a focus on getting a good or daring photo has led to multiple traumas,” they write.

For some, the desire to capture the perfect selfie leads to much more than a broken wrist. Around the world, 15 selfie-takers died in 2014; 39 in 2015; and 73 died in the first eight months of 2016, according to a study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

This year’s total so far is 29, including a 25-year-old man fell to his death down the 60-metre high Palouse waterfall earlier this month in Washington state, while he was posing for a selfie with his girlfriend. “He died doing what he loved,” went the headline on a local news site, apparently without even a hint of irony.

In May, a 22-year-old Scot died after he was hit by a car on the A24 Autobahn near Hamburg in Germany, while taking a selfie. In February, a 25-year-old woman in New Zealand was swept away in a dam surge while posing for a selfie, after apparently ignoring the five-minute warning siren for the dam floodgates.

Some of us can’t even seem to drive to the shops anymore without whipping out the phone and capturing that perfect pout

Instagram user ‘drewssik’, a 17-year-old Russian student, populated his account with a series of death-defying selfies until, in 2015, he was staging a fall off a nine-storey building near Moscow, when his hand slipped and he really did fall to his death.

Russia has taken steps to warn its citizens of the risks of taking risky selfies, after a 21-year-old woman survived accidentally shooting herself in the head while posing for a selfie with a gun in Moscow. The government campaign includes a leaflet and a website that warns people not to take selfies while driving, standing on the train tracks while a train approaches, with a gun pointed at their head, climbing an electricity pylon, or in the middle of a busy highway.

In India, where hardly a month goes by without someone perishing on the twin rocks of idiocy and exhibitionism as they try to capture the perfect selfie in front of an oncoming train, Mumbai police have identified more than a dozen “no-selfie zones” around the city.

Is this really what we’ve come to? Warning people that taking a selfie with a gun pointed at their head or from the top of a pylon or standing in the middle of the railway tracks as a high-speed train approaches may not be a great idea? Apparently so.

The notion of an imperfect image now almost seems quaint

Some of us can’t even seem to drive to the shops anymore without whipping out the phone and capturing that perfect pout: a 2015 survey by Erie Insurance Group in the US found that 4 percent of all drivers admitted to taking selfies while driving.

It’s difficult to think of a more appropriate, or more depressing, symbol for this shallow, social-media-obsessed age than death by narcissism.

Even when selfies don’t end in death or injury, there is something deeply unhealthy about a society in thrall to such a contrived, self-aware and fundamentally needy form of expression.

Photographs used to serve a social purpose. Families and groups of friends would huddle together squinting and hissing at one another to smile. The best results were often the imperfect ones – the ones with a toddler’s fist in a sibling’s hair; where someone is laughing and someone else is looking away.

It’s no wonder people taking selfies are so immersed in their own private world, that their judgment and environmental awareness plummets

The notion of an imperfect image now almost seems quaint.

Selfies, usually taken alone, are painstakingly posed, discarded, retaken, filtered, uploaded. There are apps you can download now to narrow the width of your face, clear your complexion, widen and brighten your eyes, whiten your teeth, warm up the tones of your skin and hair, smooth out your wrinkles.

When you are satisfied that you look nothing like your flesh-and-blood self, you upload the photo and wait for the affirmation – likes, comments and follows – to roll in. Because, of course, the real appeal of a selfie isn’t the taking of it: it’s the dopamine hit you get from the affirmation of total strangers on the Internet.

It’s no wonder people taking selfies are so immersed in their own private world, that their judgment and environmental awareness plummets. “While taking selfies, proprioception and spatial awareness is often poorer, as attention is focused on a mobile device. This can lead to trauma, resulting in hospitalization,” the doctors say. Or death – 29 times this year.

The most recent selfie death happened last Tuesday, in Sri Lanka. A 24-year-old newlywed man was killed, and his bride seriously injured, when they were taking a selfie on a railway track in the southern province of Kahawa, just two days after two brothers died doing the same thing.

According to eye witnesses, the couple had ignored warning signals given by the people in the area saying that the train was coming, because they were too busy trying to get the perfect shot.

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