Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, an associate professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi (IIITD), began looking at the phenomenon of accidental selfie-related deaths after reading about one in India last summer.
“When I first looked at the article, I was definitely disturbed looking at how many died because of taking a selfie,” says Kumaraguru, who earned his PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He rattles off examples of the 127 selfie deaths that have taken place around the world between March 2014 and September 2016, many of which involve slipping off cliffs, being hit by trains, or being pulled under water.
He’s now one of the researchers at CMU and IIITD who are creating a smartphone app that recognizes life-threatening selfies.
While still in development, Kumaraguru says their vision involves an app integrated into smartphone cameras. It would work by evaluating potentially hazardous selfie situations and then either warn the user or temporarily shut down the smartphone.
Their data may also be used to inform public policy, including designating “no selfie zones” in certain high-risk areas and creating education programs on dangerous selfie practices.
As part of the project, Kumaraguru and his students figured out the number and correlation of selfie deaths around the world. The information led to a report published last month, as well as an online database now available to the public.
They found that the group with the highest selfie casualties were those between the ages of 20 and 24. Factors such as heights and water contributed to the most deaths, followed by trains, electricity, weapons and animals.
Kumaraguru believes one of the reasons behind the phenomenon is a growing community found on social media platforms, where selfies are tagged with phrases such as #deathbyselfie, #dangerousselfie and #mostdangerousselfie. As far as these thrill-seekers are concerned, the bigger the risk, the more desirable the selfie.
“They become champions in this community of taking dangerous selfies,” says Kumaraguru.
One Instagram search for #dangerousselfie resulted in thousands of images, many of which featured people leaning over the edges of cliffs or tall buildings. One even has two men standing near a pride of feeding lions.
The hashtags proved essential to one part of the group’s research, which involved collecting more than 1,000 images and using them to train a computer to recognize dangerous selfies.
Kumaraguru says that while critics may chalk selfie deaths up to a lack of common sense or pure stupidity, it’s still worth trying to intervene.
“It’s not just the people who are taking the selfie, but the people around them who also die,” says Kumaraguru, citing one instance where four people were killed trying to rescue a drowning girl who fell into the water while taking a selfie. “Some deaths could have been stopped.”