When Selfies Turn Deadly
The fatal hunt for a viral hit
avid Lopez can feel his heart racing with excitement. The moment has arrived. The 32-year-old is standing by the side of the road in the Spanish town of Villaseca de la Sagra, where a bull run is currently taking place. One of the 800kg beasts is bearing down on him, 100 metres away and closing fast. Lopez holds out his smartphone and turns his back…
The bull is just 50 metres from him now. With shaking hands he switches to selfie mode and grins for the camera. Ten metres. Now he just has to leap over the fence and the image will become an instant hit on Facebook – or at least that’s his plan. But Lopez hasn’t factored in that his selfie perspective is deceiving. Moments after he pushes the button, a 20cm-long horn pierces his neck from behind. He’s thrown through the air like a rag doll and gored by the angry bull. His selfie never sees the light of day – but a harrowing video shot by onlookers does.
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For the past five years, the rise of selfies has appeared unstoppable. More than 100 million digital self-portraits are shot every day. The images are uploaded onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and shared, distributed and liked in their millions. The camera function has become the most important piece of kit on today’s smartphones – no one in their right mind would ever dream of making a phone without one. Selfie-sticks and photo-related apps sell by the bucketload.
But what has only gradually become clear is this: selfies don’t just impact on the smartphone industry or social networks. Researchers believe the hunt for the ultimate self-image actually changes our personalities – and increasingly, has fatal consequences. The likes of David Lopez and at least 50 others who have died shooting selfies in the past 18 months are testament to this.
Last year took the art of selfies to dangerous new levels, with people, quite literally, dying to take a picture of themselves. Five times as many people now die from taking selfies as they do from shark attacks. And those are just the incidents that are reported. The real number, including cases like car drivers who die taking selfies, could be much higher. In Russia and India, where a spike in selfie-related incidents has resulted in many deaths over the past year, the government has stepped in to create ‘no-selfie zones’. Mumbai alone has 16 such areas.
But why are more and more people dying while taking selfies? What impact do these smartphone portraits have on our behaviour? And who is particularly at risk?
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It happens with every like on Facebook, every favourite on Twitter, every share on Instagram. Upload a selfie to a social network and you’ll receive feedback from friends, colleagues, even strangers – often immediately. And that fires the synapses in the brain. As soon as that photo is shared, liked or commented on, neurologists have discovered that the brain releases dopamine, a happiness hormone also triggered by certain drugs or eating lots of
sugar. “We want more of that feeling,” explains neurologist Dar Meshi. “We become addicted to the substance that triggered this intoxication. In the case of selfies it is this recognition from your peers and the attention you get from them.”
Helping selfie junkies in their hunt for the perfect hit is the fact that people are scientifically more likely to spend time looking at human faces than they are at a picture of a landscape or an object. According to Jan-hinrik Schmidt, an expert on digital interactive media, selfies create other possibilities. “Social media opens up new avenues of communication that were not as readily available before,” he says. If someone takes a photo of an elephant in the Thai jungle on their smartphone today, it can be shared, liked and rated by half the world just seconds later.
There are also thousands of photo apps designed to help the user take better selfies: wrinkles disappear, overcast skies suddenly become clear, colours are warmer, smiles brighter. The result is an image of a person as he or she wants to be perceived by others. The problem is that the internet now has billions of people vying for the attention of others – in real time, 24 hours a day. And the general rule of thumb is: the more likes you get, the more dopamine is released, something confirmed by Angela Tillmann from the Institute for Media Research.
“There’s a weird sort of ‘outdoing’ mentality in the online world,” she says. “Everyone is trying to make it look like they should be taken more seriously than everyone else.” And for many people that means taking more risks with their selfies than others have done before them.
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Inching ever closer to the side of the cliff, a grimace at the wheel of a car doing 250km/h, a picture of you and a deadly snake – thousands of people step beyond what constitutes common sense, not to mention their own comfort zones, to generate online interest in their selfies. They overcome their fears, are more open to taking risks, even become narcissistic. In other words, selfies don’t just alter the neural circuits and the release of messenger substances in the brain, they manipulate our behaviour.
A worrying trend in Germany has seen teenage girls running across train tracks with a friend, lying down on the rails and taking selfies. It’s a scarcely believable craze that has already cost many young women their lives. Trains in Germany regularly travel at speeds in excess of 160km/h. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, when the wind is blowing in a different direction, trespassers on the line often don’t hear the train until it’s almost on top of them. If the train is 100 metres away, you’ve barely got a couple of seconds to scramble to safety.
Granted, 99.9% of risky selfies pass off without incident – nobody dies and nobody gets injured. In an ideal world the photo becomes a viral hit. But psychologists warn that the very act of taking a selfie means one’s full attention is not on the job in hand. This has obvious dangers. Consider the air force pilot taking a photo during a training flight at the very moment he releases the missiles, the base jumper snapping away with his helmet camera during a freefall, or the park visitors who capture themselves grinning with a grizzly bear behind them.
So far, all of these stunts have gone off without a hitch and brought the photographers plenty of attention around the globe. But they also add fuel to the belief that every risky selfie will turn out fine. Perhaps even one that involves multitasking, something that might sound innocuous, but in fact is anything but…
It has been scientifically proven that even the most insignificant distraction causes concentration levels to sink dramatically. This is particularly true in the case of smartphones, where your field of vision – be it the ground under your feet or what’s directly in front of you – is shrunk from 180 degrees to just ten. You perceive only the screen on your smartphone. So it’s virtually impossible to calculate the distance between you and an onrushing bull while you’re busy getting the camera into the right position and striking a mean pose all at the same time.
Looking cool and getting likes – that’s what Oscar Otero Aguilar dreamed of. The 21-year-old uploaded a photo of himself to Facebook posing in front of a white limousine. But he only got 63 likes. Maybe he needs to come across meaner and tougher. So Aguilar gets hold of a weapon. At a party, the young Mexican holds the gun to his head with his right hand, and, with the camera in selfie mode, holds out his smartphone in his left hand. Striking a mean pose, he pushes the button. Or so he thinks. Tragically, Aguilar pressed down on the thing he was holding in his right hand, not his left. He pulled the trigger. Oscar Otero Aguilar died on the way to hospital.