Say ‘cheese’ and die: The craze for lethal selfies

Olesia Suspitsina fell to her death in Turkey, at the end of a COVID lockdown. This pic is from 2019.

Olesia Suspitsina fell to her death in Turkey, at the end of a COVID lockdown. This pic is from 2019.

Social media lies at the heart of selfie culture, by providing a platform, an audience: it’s where you go to ask the world to “look at moy”.

This is perhaps especially true of high-risk selfies where, say, people climb over a fence to picture themselves at the edge of a cliff.

Or venture out on to rocks high where giant waves are breaking.

Or drive stupidly fast while pulling funny faces at their camera.

If they don’t fall to their death, or get washed away, or end up splashed against a tree, they’re able to post their derring-do on Instagram.

And, if all goes really well, they get to soak up the hero worship. And perhaps think about what they can do next to further their legend.

Can Instagram help reduce the idiocy?

If Instagram provides the audience for acts of idiocy, can it be used to effectively warn selfie-takers of immediate dangers … just before they climb or that fence or head out on to those rocks.

There are, after all, high-risk selfie hotspots, such at the Diamond Bay cliffs in Sydney.

Or the Figure Eight Pools in the Royal National Park, NSW.

Selfie-takers have been killed in both spots.

How could it help?

University of New South Wales researchers are in the early stages of working with Instagram on the problem.

In a Conversation piece, based on a new study, the researchers write:

“Our research with Instagram aims to do this by communicating directly to selfie takers through the Instagram app.

“The aim is to tailor safety messaging to Instagram users by geolocating them with known risky selfie spots – sending users a safety alert in real time.”

People have died taking selfies at Figure Eight Pools, Royal National Park, NSW.

In other words, Instagram will know that you’ve arrived at a designated deadly selfie hot spot, and then send a message warning of the risks.

It’s a clever idea but is there some risk that this may in fact encourage some users to take the risk at these hot spots? And why would the users be more compliant than they are in response to signage?

I put this in an email to one of the study authors, Samuel Cornell, PhD candidate, UNSW Beach Safety Research Group, School of Population Health, UNSW Sydney.

He replied: “You make good points by raising these questions. But they are indeed questions, and we can’t know the answers to them until we implement them.”

Where are things at?

The researchers have receive some funding from Instagram.

They are “yet to implement” anything with an app as yet. That will take a committed buy-in from Instagram.

In the mean time. Mr Cornell is “going to be conducting a messaging campaign with (Queensland’s National Park and Wildlife Service) soon to test and evaluate messaging around social media risks in nature”.

High-risk selfies as a public health issue

The researchers found that media reports tend to focus more on blaming the newly-deceased, and offer nothing in the way of promoting safety.

As the authors write in The Conversation piece:

“With the right communication strategy, we know we can reduce the number of these entirely avoidable tragedies.”

Despite fatalities, people continue to pose for risky photos at Diamond Bay, Sydney.

Maybe. Part of that strategy, they say, is to recognise high-risk selfies as a public hazard issue. This idea, and the new research underpinning it, was widely reported in Australia and overseas media last week.

For the moment, dangerous sites are treated to an ad hoc response, normally increased signage warning of the dangers.

If dangerous selfies were recognised as a public health concern, there would presumably be a broader policy response. Part of that response might see Instagram pushed to getting more involved.

It’s not wholly a new idea

In 2015, deaths of young people from taking selfies in high-risk places were so out of hand in Russia, that the government launched a campaign to reign them in.

Through the preceding 12 months, about 100 people seriously injured themselves and dozens died saying ‘cheese’.

In their last moments, some of these people died on train tracks, with the train approaching from behind.

Part of Russia’s campaign against dangerous selfies. Image: Russian Interior Ministry

Others were electrocuted climbing on towers or railway bridges. There were the all too common falls from high buildings and cliffs. And drownings, and wild beasts gone berserk rather than posing compliantly.

One 21-year-old woman accidentally shot herself in the head in Moscow while taking a selfie holding a pistol. She survived but with slurred speech.

Two young men died in the Urals thought it hilarious to photograph themselves while holding a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. The selfie survived as a record, the men did not.

The Russian interior ministry responded selfie deaths with a leaflet, a video and public safety advice on the ministry’s website.

“A cool selfie could cost you your life,” the ministry warned in the leaflet.

Its advice included: “A selfie with a weapon kills”.

Russia also declared a number of sites as “selfie-free zones”.

Similar strategies were adopted in India, where the most selfie deaths occur.

The UNSW researchers say that it’s not clear how effective these strategies have been. “If anything, selfie incidents seem to be increasing globally, they say.

The UNSW research and the selfie toll

The researchers analysed five peer-reviewed studies. Four of these identified “falls from height as the most common injury mechanism in selfie incidents”.

Drowning was the second most common cause of death.

The mean age of the reported victims was 22.1 (SD 6.93) years with victims more likely to be female tourists.

One study found that 379 people worldwide were killed due to selfies between 2008 and 2021, with even more injured.

The true number of selfie injuries and deaths is unknown. It’s thought that the selfie aspect of these events often goes unremarked.

Not just young people are idiots

As Samuel Cornell observes, “with any public health issue, we rarely totally abolish it.”

People still smoke, they still speed, and they keep using using drugs.

“It’s all about mitigating risk, communicating risks, reducing the incidence of harm.”

But of course, warning signage at popular sites often go ignored. At the 12 Apostles in Victoria, the signs are blunt: stay behind the fence, the cliff edges are crumbly, and you risk falling to your death.

Whole families were routinely photographed climbing through the barrier. See here.

Death is no dissuader

In 2019, a young woman fell to her death at Diamond Head Bay at about 11.20am on a Saturday morning.

Within hours, the cliffs still effectively a crime scene, people turned up to take their own photographs.

Many, like the dead woman, climbed over a fence to stand crazy-close  to the edge of a killer drop.

Five tips to staying safe

1. Think about weather and water conditions

Weather and coastal conditions can change rapidly. Just because the weather and waves don’t appear dangerous when you start your selfie journey, they might be when you get there. Check before you go, avoid bad weather, and keep a close eye on tidal and wave conditions.

2. Don’t walk past safety signs and physical barriers

Warning signs are there to provide life-saving information. Pay attention to signs and heed their advice. Don’t jump or go around any physical barriers blocking access. They are likely there for a good reason.

3. Stay on the designated path

Staying on paths and trails is safest and also does fragile ecosystems a big favour.

4. Don’t get too close to the edge. Be aware of crumbling edges

Don’t trust cliff edges and be aware of unstable ground. Cliff edges are naturally eroding and your extra weight doesn’t help. People have died from cliff edges crumbling away while standing on them.

5. No amount of ‘likes’ is worth your life

Consider your motivations for taking selfies and using social media. Studies show spending time in nature is good for our health. But the world looks better when not viewed through a screen.

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