Don’t become a killfie statistic!

India is one of the most selfie-obsessed nations in the world, resulting in the unfortunate reputation of having the highest selfie deaths of 60%. How can behavioural science inform about the reasons and solutions to this disturbing statistic?

On annotating news articles about selfie deaths from all over the world, researchers found that 76 out of 127 selfie deaths between March 2014 to Sept 2015 occurred in India. A more recent study annotating selfie-related deaths from 2011 to 2017 found that India was home to 50% of selfie deaths in the world during this period.

These are alarming statistics for a country with a mobile phone internet user penetration rate of 40% with a majority usage amongst young people. What can explain this and can this behavior be addressed?

Millennials account for almost all of the selfie deaths in India, according to an Economic Times report. This is likely because young people are dealing with an identity that shifts between the boundaries of their offline and online worlds. 

A selfie address three vital elements – self-representation, visual portraiture and sharing who they are. But while selfies freeze time, its shelf life is limited. Once posted, a selfie decays with time, even as it generates reactions, likes, and comments – until the next selfie is taken and uploaded. “I take 15 different selfies to upload one on social media,” said a college student in a study on ‘selfitis’, or the obsessive taking of selfies.

Another study done of Mumbai’s teens shows that narcissism, selfie posting, and photo-editing had a strong relationship with higher body image dissatisfaction amongst female selfie takers. For these young people, a selfie may genuinely capture a moment which they need to share but for many others, it morphs into an addiction that results in risky behaviors for themselves and others.

Why are selfies taken?

Selfies are seen to reiterate self-identity and have a self-reinforcement effect – narcissism leads to more selfies being taken which enhances their narcissism levels. The taking of selfies and the sharing on social media has been explored by psychologists, the world over. The HEXACO (Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness (versus Anger), Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience) and the Big 5 personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism) have been used by researchers to identify personality traits that lead to selfie behaviors.

And it seems there are some differences observed between why girls and boys take selfies. Girls seek to establish leadership and authority with selfies, while for boys they are about entitlement and exploitation.

Researchers who conducted the study to understand the obsessive taking of selfies in India designed the Selfie behavioral scale that demonstrates the six factors that explain three severity levels of borderline, acute, and chronic selfitis. This study amongst college students identified that self-confidence and mood modification factors explain the borderline condition, subjective conformity explains the acute condition, and attention seeking, environmental enhancement, and social competition explains the chronic condition.

How has machine learning helped?

A detailed analysis of Twitter data across an 18-month period saw researchers curating 91,059 tweets that further classified selfies as dangerous and non-dangerous. This team that came up with the term ‘killfie’, looked at Twitter data from India to identify factors that could predict risk of taking a selfie (Me, myself and my killfie).  Tweets were classified based on their geo-location, text and the image. Dangerous selfie images were annotated for the different types of risks or features: water, height, vehicle, road, animal, weapon and train. The three features that best predicted risk were water, height and vehicle/train. Individually, ‘image’ alone was able to predict the danger of taking a selfie better than either location and text: it has an accuracy of 73%. When a tweet combined image, text and geo-location, it provided the highest accuracy in predicting risk.

Locally, @selfietodiefor has been sending out tweets to spread awareness on selfie deaths. The Mumbai police use its resources to verbally warn selfie-takers in high-risk prone areas. The #selfiekills hashtag has been launched to warns about selfie deaths. An application that will warn selfie-takers of a particularly risky no-go area is being developed. Indonesia and Russia are taking preventative measures to increase awareness of selfie free zones and selfie risks. 2,000 spots around the world have been identified as being risk prone. There is a lot being done with potential for more.

What else can be done?

Selfie deaths have become a recurring tragedy. The travel industry and thousands of travel blogs, vlogs and personal bloggers that encourage experiences to be posted so that it may capture a mood, a moment, an experience, could also encourage safer selfie-taking methods. Can the killfie statistic be smartly used as a travel health warning to the many tourists who travel and capture unique and personal experiences?

Can selfie versions of mobile cameras offer a choice to selfie-takers about safety before a selfie is taken at a risk-prone place? Are you sure it is safe to take a selfie? Nudge when the selfie mode is switched on? Or a ‘Is it selfie worthy? reminder printed into the many colorful brochures of local tourist spots. Or the use of death statistics to be a harsh reminder of selfie dangers in high-risk zones. Or social norming which addresses perceived misperceptions of the social norm to influence safer behaviors? The type of nudge or behavioral intervention that is likely to work is very much dependent on the context and the specific behavior. The problem of selfie deaths requires that these methods are explored fully.

It needs to remind people (young and old alike) that becoming a killfie statistic is a rather sad outcome to a potentially inspiring life.

3 thoughts on “Don’t become a killfie statistic!”

  1. The selfie taking obsession is not any less in other parts of the world as in India
    It is the safety measures and implementation of these measures keep the selfie obsessive in the developed world.from dying

    Where in developed world can you get closer to a railway track or stop at your will on a highway?

    1. Hi Mani,
      firstly thanks for taking time to comment. You are absolutely right, selfies are not necessarily an India centric behaviour – but dangerous selfies definitely are – in fact, some of the research also shows that it is only in India that groups of people seem to perish while taking dangerous selfies – groups of friends in boats, posing together at railway tracks etc.
      Implementing stricter and firmer behavior change measures goes beyond just giving passive information – No selfie zone etc. its needs stronger interventions to affect change.

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