The careless selfie has joined texting-while-driving as the latest high-risk, digital-age phenomena to have a rising body count.
A research team including two Carnegie Mellon University students documented 127 deaths worldwide and many more injuries that occurred while people clicked selfies. Their study posted Nov 7 on arXiv – a Cornell University online repository of scientific studies – has drawn expansive media attention.
The team now is developing free apps, based on procedures explained in the study and expected to be available mid-January, to help prevent selfie deaths and injuries when common sense fails to intervene.
Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, an associate professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi who led the study, said several deaths have occurred since the study was posted. They commonly occurred when selfie-takers fell off buildings or cliffs, were struck by trains, killed by animals or fell into bodies of water and drowned.
In May, for example, a man was taking selfies in a wildlife park in China with a seemingly friendly walrus when it grabbed him and dragged him into a pool, where the man drowned.
"There are competitions in social media where people are taking dangerous selfies and posting them with a hashtag and someone else takes another to show theirs is more dangerous," Kumaraguru said. "Another thing to think about is that some are just mistakes."
Kumaraguru, who earned his Ph.D. in computer science at CMU, said he launched the study after a report of a selfie death circulated in his research group's mailing list. The research team included Hemank Lamba, a CMU doctoral student who authored the study, and CMU student Megha Arora, among others.
The study defines a selfie-related casualty as one "that could have been avoided had the individual(s) not been taking a selfie." They surveyed media reports of selfie deaths worldwide and evaluated the credibility of each source in compiling their results.
The earliest reported selfie-related death was in March 2014, with 76 of the selfie deaths (or 60%) occurring in India, with nine in Pakistan, eight in the United States and six in Russia. Most of the American deaths involved gun-loving selfie takers accidentally shooting themselves.
"The trend and culture of posting selfies on social media have been investigated widely over the past few years," the study said. "The popularity of selfies being posted on online social media has drawn a lot of researchers to study various aspects of the selfie trend," including psychological, historical and social aspects of the phenomenon.
In India, an effort to take a selfie caused a boat on Mangrul Lake to tilt, leading to seven drownings. "By analysing selfie deaths – in terms of group and individual deaths – it can be concluded that taking dangerous selfies not only puts the selfie-taker at risk but also can be hazardous to the people around them," the study said.
Twenty-nine selfie deaths occurred from falls and 11 occurred when selfie-takers were hit by trains. "We found that taking selfies on train tracks is a trend," the study found, noting that such selfies are based on the idea "that posting on or next to train tracks with their best friend is regarded as romantic and a sign of never-ending friendship.".
That is, until a train arrives unexpectedly.
The apps the team is developing will help the user determine whether the location is dangerous. If so, the app can take action, including turning off the smartphone's selfie camera function to help prevent an accident. It also can alert the user whether casualties occurred in such locations or that actual location.
Lamba said his research at CMU is focused on using digital technology to help solve modern-day problems. Of course, he said, some people will try taking a selfie at places any app identifies as high risk.
"There can be no app for stupidity," he said, quoting reactions others have had to the study. — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Tribune News Service