Dangerous selfies are becoming a distinct sort of rash. Situations that wouldn’t normally be dangerous become dangerous as soon as someone decides to open the camera app. It’s a very minor phenomenon, but it is a phenomenon nonetheless – Wikipedia has a list of selfie accidents and injuries which I’ll link here. Surely, common sense wins, right? These people surely aren’t any dumber than their ancestors, right? Why is this happening?
Social Media – and Reward Centers
Every social media app is designed to reward you for interacting with it. Humans are social creatures that like to feel accepted, and a social media app hijacks the part of the human brain that craves that acceptance. It’s also often easier to make mutuals on Twitter than it is to build a friendship IRL. Some people become dependent on social media to supplement the attention they desire from the outside world. Some want to see other people live crazy lives. Others still only watch out of hatred.
Either way, pictures and videos are the only way the subject can share their crazy, hot, rich life with outsiders on social media. Better pictures means more followers means more money from brand deals means more money to travel for better pictures. It’s a vicious cycle. There must always be more. You don’t even have to be an influencer in the traditional sense to fall into the cycle! Average people take stupid, risky pictures just so they can post them on social media and get that hit of reward.
The reward – the picture, and the approval of dozens or hundreds of people, clouds the risk – serious injury or death. Sometimes the adrenaline is exciting too. The psychology behind this behavior is actually not entirely the social media app’s fault, and people will put themselves into danger (that they would ordinarily recognize) even without the camera.
Redlining is a term that originally comes from diving, but can apply anywhere. While diving, you have on equipment rated for a certain depth. There are failsafes in place to make sure you can go a little further – most of the time, your tank isn’t going to implode just because you sank a foot further than you meant to while exploring a wreckage or a coral reef. But you shouldn’t stay there. Redlining affects all divers, amateurs to veterans, and it’s insidious – you see something juuust beyond your depth and think ‘I can go a little further’.
But once you’re past the red line, suddenly nothing is holding you back. The barrier was weak and only mattered as much as you cared about it – as you go deeper, you may feel uneasy that you’ve crossed the line, but you’re already below where you were supposed to be, and your equipment hasn’t failed, so… how bad can a little further be? And a little further beyond that? The danger doesn’t feel like it’s getting any greater now that you’re twenty feet below your redline, but it is – atmospheric pressure, which is directly responsible for how easily you can access the air in your tank, has increased by about 50% as you went from 40 feet to 60 feet.
The danger is increasing. But the brain is wired to assume that because nothing bad has happened yet, nothing will. The threat is ambiguous, indirect. No predator is threatening you. Nothing in your environment except for the environment itself could harm you. It is you and nature. Divers die each and every year from going just a little further, and then a little further…
Redlining psychology suggests to selfie-takers that nothing bad happened last time, so they can go a little deeper this time. Get a little more intense this time. Dangle off the side of a building, hold onto their phone through that rollercoaster’s turn because they did on the last ride, you get the picture. Nothing bad happened. Nothing bad will happen. Until it does!
Dubai banned a couple from accessing one of their many hotels when they took a photo of the guy holding her over the railing of the hotel, several stories above the ground. The only thing supporting her was his hand around her wrist. If one of them slipped their grip, she would have died. That’s not an exaggeration. She doesn’t have a harness. Videos are (or were) available of them getting into this position for the shot.
While researching for this article, I discovered a different couple had taken a selfie in front of a hotel that was burning. They weren’t in danger, it’s just sort of comical that very real emergency became a photo-op for tourists. Many complain that Dubai is very superficial – what a way to catch it on film.
High-stakes parkour has costed people their lives. Some parkour folks use harnesses the same way rock climbers do, but others… others don’t believe they’ll fall. So when they do, they fall all the way down. See this Russian parkour-er who got incredibly lucky that he slipped where he did. If he hadn’t caught those cables, or if those cables hadn’t supported his weight, he’d be dead. This is redlining in action. He’s done this before, clearly. He probably has experience on that roof. All of this makes it feel safer, like the ground is only a few stories away instead of 25. He got complacent.
Driving too fast is fun. It’s not safe, it’s not good for traffic, but it’s fun.
Driving becomes infinitely more dangerous when you’re holding a phone. Not just because one hand has to hold it – many of the people I see on social media doing this are constantly glancing over to their phone to make sure they’re still centered in the picture. The picture becomes more important than the road. Transportation-based selfie injuries on that Wikipedia list are often due to trains and subways – turns out live wires on top of the train can electrocute you instantly – but cars and bikes make up a fair amount too. There’s even a plane crash or two in there!
Even worse, car-based selfie deaths often take innocent bystanders with them – one woman on a bike was injured badly after a man taking a selfie in his car hit her from behind, while he escaped unscathed. Young influencers have accidentally spun out their rented sports cars after trying to record their route live. That’s not to say drivers never die – a woman who removed her seatbelt to take a picture was killed after a crash rolled her car.
Yellowstone and other parks have to warn people that animals are not friendly. This isn’t necessarily the fault of selfie culture – animals are big, dangerous creatures, and if you live somewhere that doesn’t have any moose, you might underestimate how dangerous a moose is compared to, say, a bear. Popular media often makes animals seem gentle and passive, unless it’s sharks, bears, crocs, or other carnivores. Everyone knows bears are dangerous.
But moose are far more likely to escalate an incident than a bear is, and also deadlier to strike with a car. Deer can kick with enough force to kill dogs and tear muscle. Bison can weigh as much as a car, and can run over tourists just as effectively. It’s totally understandable that someone unfamiliar with those animals might want to take a selfie with it up close, which is why Yellowstone deliberately warns people not to do that. And yet – every year – people do. Classic redlining. “It’s not moving towards me, I’m probably far away enough – surely I can take a picture with this large animal behind me without ticking it off.” The answer was no! You couldn’t! Tourists may not recognize bison’s warning behaviors, so the risk was already underestimated, but the dangling reward of taking a picture with an animal only clouds it further.
Strangely, many of them seem to realize they’re supposed to pull a terrified face, according to Tom Stienstra (via an article on Washington Post) but don’t seem to understand why they should be making that face. The parasitic selfie has disconnected the fear center from the action center, so being scared is a joke for the image, not a real human emotion.
Long story short: many of these folks wouldn’t get into these situations if they weren’t aiming for a selfie. I’m sure teens would still try to climb on top of subway cars, and people are struck by trains plenty of times a year without their phone in-hand, but something about the selfie itself is hypnotic. It lures its followers into the jaws of death. Take the picture. Taaaaake it.