Culture Vulture

Selfies: A risky sport

Studies say selfie addicts risk doing themselves mental and physical harm

I can count the number of selfies I've taken with the fingers of one hand. It's a risky sport, shooting yourself.

Earlier this month, a Mexican man actually shot himself while taking a selfie - Oscar Aguilar was posing with a gun for what he hoped would be his best self-portrait yet, according to news reports.

About two weeks ago, a Polish couple on holiday fell to their deaths while taking a selfie on the edge of a cliff in Portugal. Their fatal descent was witnessed by their children, aged five and six.

In June, the Daily Mail reported that an Italian teenager fell to an ugly death while taking a cliff-side selfie. Two months earlier, in April, a Russian teen shooting for a daredevil selfie on a railway bridge fell and electrocuted herself, according to British news site Mirror.

If "selfie" was last year named the Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year, this year might be reserved for "extreme selfie" or "death selfie" as the act of snapping a self-portrait with a digital camera or smartphone is taken to insane lengths around the world.

Fighter pilots shoot themselves while firing missiles, air disaster survivors are clicking selfies while fleeing burning planes and a man who tried taking a selfie during the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona last month is making social media headlines under the hashtag #eltontolmovil or "the idiot with the mobile".

A friend sent me a photo of the fire warning card on his hotel room in Germany, which also read in English: "In case of fire, please exit the building. Do not post pictures on social media."

The desire to make self-portraits is not new. Artists from Rembrandt to Picasso have painted themselves and in 1966, American astronaut Buzz Aldrin took a "selfie" in space before the term was coined.

The convenience of cameraphones and digital cameras, combined with the ability to share these photographs on social media, led to a rise in self-snapshots and the first use of the word "selfie" in a Sept 2002 posting in Australian forum ABC Online.

Now people are constantly and even fatally competing with strangers for the cashless but seemingly priceless crown of an ultimate selfie, a snapshot of time that will crest the waves of social media, make the photographer stand out amid the vast herd of Internet surfers, and maybe go on to break Twitter, as did comedian Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar Night group selfie (Groufie? Wefie?) earlier this year.

Why are people going to such lengths to take stand-out selfies? It is not just in search of Internet fame, psychologist Pamela Rutledge said last year in Psychology Today. She says that selfies "enable a brief adventure into a different aspect of self or a relaxation of normal constraints", allowing the photographer to experiment with his identity.

I see her point. I've taken selfies to commemorate getting on a bicycle after 20 years and to prove to my mother that I was still alive after my plane disappeared from the Flight Tracker app she was using to track my journey home. But these selfies were shared only with my immediate family, in part because I was brought up to think that it is low-class to demand appreciation for the simple act of being oneself.

Dr Rutledge has an answer for this, saying that people have mixed reactions to selfies because such photos violate current rules of social presentation. The rules say seeking attention is wrong unless one is being paid to do so or has achieved some great deed. "But that doesn't mean the act of taking a selfie is a bad thing. Taking selfies is not something everyone will choose to do, of course, but just remember part of the reason it feels weird is that you're not used to doing it," she writes.

I can understand movie stars and politicians using selfies as a tool to humanise themselves and gain popularity. I can understand why an insecure teen might set himself on fire for an extreme shot - it is a loud honk from a car that might otherwise go unnoticed on crowded roads.

Selfie-takers seem hungry for approval and validation. "My life is better and more interesting than you can imagine," is the subtext of the selfie taken posing on a beach with a coconut or in the cockpit of a private plane. Ironically, the photographer hopes for reactions of awe and envy but, more often than not, receives judgment for the choice of holiday or ecologically unfriendly lifestyle.

Selfies invite short-sighted judges, probably because of those rules of social presentation. Remember that famous photograph of United States President Barack Obama taking a selfie with the Danish Prime Minister at Nelson Mandela's memorial service? Forever captured now is the sight of one of the world's most influential men clowning around at a solemn occasion, while his wife Michelle seemingly grits her teeth.

Maybe the two were preparing a photo-greeting to cheer a sick child in one of their countries, while Michelle was trying not to sneeze. No one will know and care to judge otherwise.

As selfies hold the selfie-taker up to scrutiny and ridicule, experts find that spending too much time on taking or sharing selfies can correspond to dangerously low self-esteem or deep mental distress on the part of the photographer.

A British teen obsessed with taking the perfect selfie tried to kill himself for not managing to do so, according to Mirror News, earlier this year.

A British study last year warned that those who post the most photos and selfies on social media are likely to have fewer real-life relationships. This was corroborated this month by another study from Albright University, Pennsylvania, which found that unhappy people are more likely to overshare on social media and pretend that all is picture-perfect.

Has the day come that a selfie post from a friend should lead us to stage an intervention? Perhaps it has. Perhaps when one sees a selfie on social media, one should not just "like" or ignore it but also pick up the telephone and call the poster, even if only to offer to hold the camera next time.

Remember, a selfie means the photographer had no one else to help capture a special moment, no one to say: "Smile, please" or offer to find a more flattering angle. In my dictionary, "selfie" can also mean "loneliness". And extreme selfie? That's a cry for help, loud and clear.

Do you think that people are taking too many selfies and oversharing on social media? Send your views to

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