Smartphones May Tempt, but May Also Prevent Selfie Deaths

By Tamara Mathias | May 2, 2019

Smartphones might ironically be the answer to selfie-related deaths, two wilderness medicine specialists say.

Hundreds of people have lost their lives in pursuit of daring selfies to impress their social media followers. But smartphone technology that uses global positioning system location, or measures altitude, could potentially be harnessed to prevent these unfortunate incidents, the two experts suggest.

In a letter published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, Dr. Gerard Flaherty and Michael Smith, both from the National University of Ireland Galway, discuss how cell phones could be used to transmit verbal safety warnings to users who are about to take photographs in dangerous locations, such as the edge of a cliff.

“Based on the GPS location or altitude of the tourist, we propose that there may be scope for providing verbal safety messages to individuals with their phone in camera mode, warning them that they are too close to a vertical drop. In such cases, the camera function may be disabled until the person moves away from the dangerous no selfie zone,” Flaherty and Smith write.

Research has shown that India tops the list of countries that see the highest number of selfie deaths, followed by Russia and the U.S. Most victims are young men in their twenties.

Technology is still new to much of India and with affordable internet, people are posting more photographs online to be acknowledged by peers – one of the main reasons behind risky selfies, explained Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, an associate professor at India’s Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in New Delhi.

Kumaraguru and his team have worked on developing tech solutions to the problem, including Saftie, an app that crowdsources data from users who flag locations they consider dangerous.

He believes interventions of this sort are most likely to be effective, particularly if the data gathered are put to use in popular apps like Google Maps.

Flaherty and Smith also discuss other precautions that have been put in place to mitigate selfie deaths, including warning signs and the creation of no-selfie zones. Authority figures like park rangers and wilderness medicine providers have also been deployed to counsel tourists and ensure they respect safety notices.

Safety interventions could also be targeted at the groups most affected.

“There has been very little research done on gender differences in relation to travel health impairments. It would be intriguing to explore more deeply the gender-based differences in adventure tourist risk-taking and self-photography behavior in future studies,” Flaherty told Reuters Health in an email.

Kumaraguru, however, believes that the very phones capable of causing selfie deaths are the most effective tools to prevent them.

“You could do no-selfie zones, you could put banners all around, you could put fliers all around, but will that have an impact?” he asks.

“Without phones, without technology, how would you create awareness among people on a large scale?”

But Katrin Tiidenberg, an associate professor of social media and visual culture at Tallinn University, Estonia, told Reuters Health she believes “selfie-related deaths are likely highly over-sensationalized (and) overreported.”

Tiidenberg, who authored a book called “Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them,” added, “Some people behave in risky ways. That was true before selfies. So I think people should be counseled to be mindful of the risks in potentially dangerous natural and tourist destinations, but I don’t think there is a reason to make the whole thing about selfies by creating “no selfie zones.”

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