Since the past three years, Mahesh* (19) and his friends—all based out of Mumbai, India—would make their everyday journey from college to home, an adrenaline-fuelled, near-death experience. Their half-hour local train commute from south Mumbai to Chembur would see the four of them dangerously hang from the pole installed at each train compartment door to help people haul themselves in. “It was just a fun stupid thing to do, and each of us would try to outmanoeuvre each other. We would try touch things passing by, like electric poles. We would climb on the windows from the outside of the train, or even climb on the roof of the moving train at times (FYI: this is banned, and can lead to death by electrocution).” But earlier this month, one of Mahesh’s friends fell off the train. “He was taking a selfie of himself doing stunts. He was hanging out of the door, with one leg dragging on the station platform like he was skating. But he lost his grip and fell off the train.” Thankfully, his friend landed on the station platform itself even as his phone went under the wheels of the moving train. He escaped with just a bruised knee and sprained wrist.
Many others, though, aren’t so lucky. More than 250 people across the world have died in the pursuit of the perfect selfie—dubbed ‘selficides’ and ‘killfies’—between 2011 to 2017. And according to a study done by researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), more than half of them have been Indians.
There are lots of incredibly weird things that can get you killed: playing Pokémon Go, hair getting caught in the wheels of a go-kart, or even eating a garden slug. But selfie deaths play on the two topics that most associate the millennials and Gen Z with: technology and narcissism. Together, they create a hazard hard to ignore—even though the statistics of selfie deaths occupy only a minuscule amount compared to the population that has cell phones (two-thirds of the world or around 5 billion unique mobile phone users around the world).
“India might be high up on this list only because half of its population is under 25,” says clinical psychologist Raghu Shankar. “You find selfie-taking particularly popular among young adults because their sense of self is still evolving, and they feel that having people ‘like’ and hence approve of their photos, adds to their self-esteem.” According to the above study, “This unique feature could be attributed to the reason that trend of group selfies is more prevalent in India as compared to other countries.”
According to the survey, other countries with higher selfie deaths include Russia, the United States and Pakistan. More than 85 percent of the victims were between the ages of 10 and 30. Of these deaths, researchers found the leading cause was drowning, followed by incidents involving transport. The other causes included ‘fall’ and ‘fire’.
2019 has already seen some ‘killfies’ as well. On January 4, an Indian student lost his life after falling off a cliff in Ireland while taking a selfie whereas in February, a man was electrocuted and a minor boy was burnt while they were trying to take a selfie on a train roof in Jamshedpur, India. Just yesterday, a schoolgirl in Orenburg, Russia, was killed after she was hit by a freight train while posing for a selfie on the tracks. On March 9, a woman was mauled by a jaguar in Arizona, USA, after entering a zoo enclosure to take a selfie—though she got away with just a laceration.
To shed its dubious tag, India has plans to identify ‘no-selfie zones’ at tourist spots. This plan has been in the works since a while though there are not many recent updates on it. There’s also an app called Saftie, which helps direct users to what might be a potentially dangerous scenario to take a picture in.
“Yes, we need restrictions in place so that people can be saved from such unreasonable deaths, and are reminded in that moment of the hazard they are putting themselves in,” says Shankar. “But we also need to examine why we want to take such pictures in the first place, and what purpose they serve. The problem lies way deeper than the act of pulling out your camera for a dangerous photo, and as a society, we need to examine why young people are willing to put their lives in danger just for an Instagram Story.”
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