We’ve all done it — angled that way, twisted the other, backed up and moved forward. We do whatever it takes to get the spectacular photo that will impress our friends. For those of us on social media, the 21st century version of a town square, nabbing the perfect shot could catapult us into internet fame. This is particularly true if we’re taking a selfie with a once-in-a-lifetime view in the background.
I, for one, have taken selfies on airplanes, selfies from observation towers, selfies at tourist traps, selfies on cruise ship decks, selfies with statues. While I occasionally post them on my Instagram and Facebook accounts, I mostly send them to the family WhatsApp group, a way of letting my children and nephews and nieces know how absolutely cool, how woke, I can be. The ubiquitous smartphone allows me to do this without a second thought.
But it turns out that selfies aren’t harmless. In fact, they’re being called “killfies” as more people, doing stupid things in order to snap that ideal picture, are staggering and stumbling and plunging to their deaths. Documenting our lives has become a dangerous stunt, in more ways than the obvious.
Between October 2011 and November 2017, 259 people in 137 incidents died while trying to take a selfie, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. The victims were young — mean age was about 23 years old — and men outnumbered women three to one. (No surprise there, since youth and testosterone can be a volatile mix.) Most common cause of deaths: drowning, transportation accidents and falling from high places.
Celebrities appear to be leading the way off cliffs. Canadian rapper Jon James McMurray was blown away after crawling out on an airplane wing while filming a music video. Travel bloggers Meenakshi Moorthy and Vishnu Viswanath plummeted 800 feet while apparently taking a selfie at Yosemite’s Taft Point, and three stars of a YouTube adventure travel show dropped to their deaths at a British Columbia waterfall.
A recent rash of killfies by total unknowns has further sounded the alarm. Just this month a 20-year-old university student died when she fell from a rock formation northwest of Little Rock, Ark. Reports say she was repositioning herself for a photo at a popular scenic spot. Right around that time a Fordham University journalism student fell from the campus clock tower, apparently while trying to take a picture. And a 26-year-old Filipino victim tumbled down a Hong Kong waterfall while snap-snapping away.
To be fair, it’s not just the young and the risk-takers who become so lost in the moment that they fail to gauge risk. A man in his 50s visiting the Grand Canyon from Hong Kong fell near the Eagle Point observation area in late March, and a 68-year-old woman was fatally scalded in a Chilean geyser — proof that we can be self-absorbed late in life too.
Regardless of age or motivation, these accidents are distressing because so many seem preventable but also because the circumstances bring into focus an embarrassing truth about how we increasingly live our lives. If we don’t record whatever we’re doing, if we don’t share it, if we don’t earn comments and thumbs up, our experience feels less worthy. Without such validation, it might as well not have happened.
Perhaps it has always been so. Recording our personal history and showing it to an audience certainly predates the tech era. Heck, human chronicles have been around in some form since before the written word. Think of those hunting scenes on cave walls. But now the easy accessibility of cameras combined with platforms to disseminate images has transformed the age-old desire to be seen, to be noticed.
I don’t expect that need to end any time soon, especially now that we have found a convenient and efficient way to elevate our humdrum existence. I do hope, however, that next time we smile into the camera we do so only after we examine what’s around us, careful to note the distance between a dramatic background and danger of the fatal kind.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.