When Self­ies Turn Deadly

The fa­tal hunt for a vi­ral hit

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - Contents -

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.

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