Friday 19 October 2018

Stepping backwards into space

Several years ago, The Boy set off for New Zealand. He was going to take advantage of a working visa for young people whereby you could work in NZ for a year if you started before your 30th birthday. There as a possibility that he'd get snagged by a Kiwi girl and never come back. Before his flight, he took us on a nostalgic walk along the coastal path from Sutton to Howth - the site of many youthful escapades. We paused on a shingled beach "That's the cliff which Robbie fell down while drunk / having his photo taken". The cliff was almost vertical,covered with screen, rocks, tussocks and bushes and at least 10m high. The consensus was that Robbie was a relaxed as a rag-doll and somehow went with the flow. In any case he picked himself up and walked away from the event. The Boy is 18/20 years older than his sisters and he has told them nightmarish war stories under a pact that they wouldn't tell the parents. There is a streak of daring in many young men that amounts to madness.

I was reflecting thus because of a snippet on RTE news about a study by The National Library of Medicine that 259 people had died while taking selfies. That can't be true, I thought, the NLM doesn't do research, even bibliographic research; they provide the infrastructure so that students can do literature reviews.  They posted the relevant paper, but that doesn't make them the authors. The BBC also mis-represents their role by claiming the NLM "recommend that 'no selfie zones' should be introduced at dangerous spots to reduce deaths". No they don't. RTE has an excellent Science Correspondent in Will Goodbody, you could wish that the newsroom talks to him before blurfing out another fatuity. There are several recent studies on the matter of selficide, most from the Third World. A report from TJTES the Turkish Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery which claims "The most preferred site of taking selfies was the edge of the cliff." No it isn't. That's only true for selfies ending badly. A report last year from India claims 75 deaths 2014-2016. Whereas a more recent study, also from India, which everyone is picking up on this week, claims twice that number.

Selfies are recent: one of my students insisted on including me in one just days after I started work at The Institute in 2013. Selfie was later announced as 2013 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.
Obviously the mere act of taking a selfie is not fatal. The proximate cause of death is intriguing in a need-more-info way: Drowned 70, transport 51, fall 48, fire 48, electrocution 16, firearm 11, animal 8 and other 7. Some of these were designated risky while the others are just unfortunate. Being selfie-distracted and swiped by a car is different from walking backwards into the traffic or outwards from the top of a cliff like Robbie. What are the animals involved? I bet most of them bigger than a breadbox and had teeth. Boys-will-be-boys are 4x more likely than women to exit in the risky department. It is also no surprise, although it may need to be said, that selficide peaks among the 15-30 demographic and that 75% of all fatalities are male.It's also interesting that 259 deaths result from 137 incidents.

They limit their studies to reports in English language newspapers and then are surprised by the fact that 60% of the reports are from India. There are a helluva a lot of Indians, folks: 1.3 billion = a sixth of all the peeps on the planet. Nevertheless when you adjust for base population, the rate is about 10x in India compared to USA or Australia.

Do we need to worry about this? Is it true that Selfies take a toll on a large number of adolescents? Is it appropriate or proportionate to implement certain measures taken to reduce selfie deaths such as declaration of certain areas as “No selfie zones” Inevitably, in a turmoil of self-reference, several people are developing GPS and situationally-aware apps to alert phone-owners where selfies are likely dangerous. The last year anybody counted the number of selfies taken was 2015 and the total was estimated to be 25 billion. That resulted in a reported 50 deaths. I suggest that you are more likely to die poking yourself in the eye because you failed to remove the spoon from your tea.

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