Are Selfie-Related Deaths a Public Health Issue?

— Experts say these deaths are increasing, and are highly preventable

A photo of tourists taking selfies at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

In some tragic instances, taking a selfie for social media can be fatal. A by Australian researchers, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, makes the bold claim that such selfie-related deaths -- particularly falls from drastic heights and drowning -- are a public health issue.

Nathalie Auger, MD, MSc, a physician epidemiologist at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre in Canada, who has conducted separate , strongly agrees.

"Selfie-related mortality is a public health concern as these deaths affect people of all ages around the world, have been increasing, and could be prevented through better public education and awareness," Auger told app.

She said her own research showed that young people are particularly at risk, and truly might not understand the risk involved with taking a daring selfie.

A quick internet search conjures multiple examples. Just last month, The Times of India reported that a 23-year-old woman died after falling 350 feet while near Mahabaleshwar, India. In September, a 22-year-old tourist in Australia while taking a selfie with friends at the Pinnacles Lookout at Cape Woolamai on Philip Island in Victoria, sustaining major injuries. Earlier this a year, a 27-year-old man taking in India was trampled to death, according to Newsweek.

Getting close to a scenic view can be dangerous in its own right. National parks have people fall to their deaths on major hikes and viewpoints each year. Just a few months ago, a 61-year-old woman in North Carolina slipped and fell to her death at along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Auger thinks these selfie-related deaths and major injuries are likely undercounted and that awareness and prevention has received little attention.

Elias Aboujaoude, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine in California, said that in the age of social media, likes, comments, and engagement are tied to users' self-worth. In trying to get that validation, people "are forced to go to extremes."

Therefore, Aboujaoude said, the public health ramifications of selfie-related deaths go beyond fatal falls and drownings.

"What is often lost in the discussion is the reason for which people will go to such extremes for that ultimate selfie," Aboujaoude told app. "Social media encourages self-promotion and narcissistic tendencies, and the overuse of selfies can be seen as a manifestation of that."

For their study, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia analyzed published literature and news reports about selfie-related deaths and injuries from 2011 onwards. Falling was the top cause of death, followed by drowning. In the 5 studies reviewed, the mean age was just 22, and victims were more often female.

News coverage tended to have three themes: blame, warning, and education/prevention. The researchers recommended that future news coverage emphasize prevention rather than victim-blaming, and that social media users should be exposed to more robust safety messaging.

In addition, previous research had recommended "no selfie zones," as well as physical barriers, signage, and information on social media apps, to help curb selfie-related deaths.

Aboujaoude thinks such safety measures could help mitigate this problem -- but only to a certain degree.

"What we really need is much more awareness of the toxic effects of social media on personality and behavior," he said. "That's where the real public health risk resides."

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    Rachael Robertson is a writer on the app enterprise and investigative team, also covering OB/GYN news. Her print, data, and audio stories have appeared in Everyday Health, Gizmodo, the Bronx Times, and multiple podcasts.