By November 2013, the term “selfie” had been used so frequently that the Oxford English Dictionary chose it as its word of the year. Two years later, 24 billion selfies were posted on Google. Snapping a selfie is now a common part of daily life. It is also a common means of far too many deaths. One analysis of news reports from October 2011 to November 2017 revealed that more than 250 people worldwide have died attempting to take a selfie. The list continues to grow. A recent case in point is a report this week of a woman who lost her footing and plunged over the edge of Eagle Falls in Emerald Bay State Park near North Lake Tahoe.
This tragedy is among the latest in an outbreak of photo-related deaths and injuries at scenic locations. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, in March, a woman was mauled by a jaguar after climbing over a barrier at the Wildlife World Zoo in Arizona to try to get a selfie with the big cat. The Associated Press reports at least one of three people to fall to their deaths at the Grand Canyon this spring was taking a photograph. It was also recently reported that a college student fell to her death after climbing the Fordham University bell tower and sending out a video via Snapchat.
Such reports are easy pickings for social media mockery and critique. Jill Filipovic, a columnist for Cosmopolitan, writes in a recent CNN opinion piece that the ugly impulse “of casting a tragedy as a selfie-related death may be a subtle way of suggesting the little narcissist deserved it.” She goes on to say that we need to see these troubling reports for what they are – painful, shocking tragedies of people pulled from our world too soon.
The first camera capable of creating a photographic image is said to have been invented by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1827. Since that time, humans have used this magical device to document their existence through frozen images through time. It has become its own art form, especially for capturing the wonders of nature. Ansel Adams began receiving critical acclaim for his startling image of Yosemite National Park as early as 1927. Capturing spectacular shots sometimes requires risks, but what is happening today feels different.
“Social media culture has fueled a kind of narcissism that is much more about one’s reflection and the need for affirmation than the connections social media claims to foster,” Filipovic writes. “Too many of us are performing too much of our lives rather than fully experiencing them. Too many of us are more interested in our own best angles than the complex and imperfect world around us.”
Rather than being present in the moment and actually enjoying where you are, it is as if people have become obsessed with proving that they had an experience by inserting themselves into the scenery, rather than appreciating these moments as they occur.
The quest is for a perfect selfie to generate lots of likes and shares on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms. Hazards arise as people take risks trying to get that perfect shot. As a result, selfie deaths have become a global preventable cause of death and a major public health problem. Efforts to dissuade people from taking dangerous selfies by creating things like “no-selfie zones” have been ineffective in stemming the tide.
Equally concerning is an All India Institute of Medical Sciences study showing that more than 85 percent of the victims recorded were between the ages of 10 and 30. As we know, children today pick up digital new-age devices early. According to a New York Times report, by their teens, they are spending six hours a day and more on screens, be it phones, laptops, iPads or Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. What are the psychological effects of all this screen time? Social scientists would like to know, but they are only now coming to terms with the fact that standard measurements are essentially meaningless when seeking an answer.
“Consider what a person can do in just the time it takes to wait for a bus,” writes the Times’ Benedict Carey. “(They might) text, watch a comedy skit, play a video game, buy concert tickets, take five selfies, each with a different set of cartoon ears.”
This reality requires an entirely new approach if social scientists are to learn how such behavior shapes an individual’s life experience and the phrase “screen time” is too broad a term to be scientifically helpful. It does not accurately capture the fragmented ever-shifting torrent of images that constitutes today’s daily digital experience. The deeper question researchers are now trying to get to, one that they have not had an easy way to study, is how these shifting patterns shape a life.
“No one really knows what the heck people are seeing on their screens,” Byron Reeves, a professor of communications at Stanford University tells the Times. “To understand what’s happening, we need to know what exactly that is.”
“How much screen time is too much” is a puzzle for a past era. Asking which patterns of activity are problematic, and for whom, is now the question of the day.
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