The selfie-takers dying just to prove how alive they are

Eva Wiseman
Picture this: a sky diver on the phone. Photograph: Joe McBride/Getty Images

Like those high-pitched alarms only teenagers can hear, the song of the selfie siren doesn’t work on everyone. But for those it does, those whose ears are tuned to their suicidal frequency and whose camera has never faced outwards, be warned. People are dying.

In 2015, there were more deaths due to selfies than shark attacks

Last week three 13-year-old Italian boys were waiting on the tracks to take a selfie in front of an oncoming train. Two jumped away in time, the third was killed. It’s the latest in a line of selfie tragedies that go beyond the usual nipple slips. At least 127 people have been killed taking selfies since 2014. The authors of a study on, deep breath, “killfies”, define them as the “death of an individual or a group of people that could have been avoided had the individual(s) not been taking a selfie”.

Most killfies involve falling from buildings or mountains, followed by drowning, and then, in third place, a combination of the two – a long fall into deep water. Also: “posing with firearms”. Further down the list, trains. “Taking selfies on train tracks is a trend,” the authors of the Carnegie Mellon study wrote. “This trend caters to the belief that posting on or next to train tracks with their best friend is regarded as romantic and a sign of never-ending friendship.” Most have taken place in India, Pakistan and the United States. Most of the people killed are men, and under the age of 24. In 2015, there were more deaths due to selfies than shark attacks.

Which led me to think, maybe we’ve been getting our fears wrong all along? What if the way technology destroys humanity is not with an uprising of robots, of toasters turning against their masters, of self-driving cars choosing a road trip less travelled, but with something as simple as a reflection? There is something so unashamedly ancient in these deaths that it almost seems gauche to point it out. The sirens singing on the rock, beckoning sailors towards their comprehensive display of filters. The boys drowning in their own image. The recording of a risk, the risk itself.

But even without the accidental suicides, selfies are heavy with death. It is in every “like”, every scroll, every attempt at showing your best self, lest your worst one has crept through a crack. Because the path between, “Me eating the best pizza in Walthamstow” and “Me standing on the most dangerous cliff in the world” is not so long. And once you’ve learned about killfies, it’s very hard to unsee them. Every Instagram post suddenly reads a little like a suicide note. The ladies lunching al fresco, who photograph burgers in place of digestion, their eyes pleading for forgiveness for every sin they’ve ever imagined. The cocktail drinkers, their glasses decorated like a hell-bound coffin, taking a picture while at the same time reaching for a kind of meaning through the screen.

The children you babysat that are somehow now twice your age with skin like unbothered milkshakes and waists surely too small to house the necessary organs, making such love to the camera that love itself is embarrassed and excuses itself to make tea. The ex, her body so taut it is no longer a body, it is a single muscle in make-up, clicking a thousand pictures and then spending so long editing them in the loo that colleagues assume she ate a bad clam.

The sirens sing for selfie-takers who have already fallen into the trap of photographing themselves beside coffee shop signs designed only to be photographed, and for the ones missing presumed buried in their phone under a pile of badly lit beach shots.

There is a way to prevent more deaths by selfie, except it involves reducing the power of the selfie itself. Part of that is promising to believe that a person once saw a fast oncoming train, or stood on a very tall cliff, without expecting time-stamped proof. Another part is learning how to tell better stories, without the use of pictures. “The light was the colour of custard, and it reminded me of being six”; “We had run out of things to say to each other, and time opened up across the table – there was a decision to make”; “All we had in common was our love for a man we knew only as Wayne82.” If we work at this then the selfie will die, photos will fade. But then there’s the hardest part, the one that will get everybody in the end – finding another way to prove that we’re alive.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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