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Why are people risking their lives to take the perfect selfie?

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Why are people risking their lives to take the perfect selfie?
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REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak
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Social media devotees pictured themselves at a toxic lake in Siberia in one of the most recent examples of the lengths people will go to for the perfect selfie.

For others, the quest has proved more serious: it claimed the lives of more than 250 people between October 2011 and November 2017, a study revealed.

Researchers, because they only analysed news reports of selfie-related deaths, said the figure could be higher, given the possibility of cases going undocumented.

This all begs the question: what drives people to do this? Euronews spoke to psychologist Dr Tracy Alloway to find out.

'It's not necessarily about the selfie'

Dr Alloway explained that it's not necessarily taking the selfie that led people to lose their lives. According to her, a lot of the time individuals taking risky-selfies were already engaged in dangerous activities.

"It's not the selfie-taking that led to their demise but the fact that these activities are already known to be risk-taking activities," she said.

Dr Alloway added this trend was linked to how a person acts online and offline.

"If someone is typically a risk-taking person or manifests those types of traits offline, they're likely to exhibit the same risk-taking behaviour online," said Dr Alloway.

"So people who would've been engaged in these behaviours just happened to be holding a phone while doing a very risky activity," she said.

It's all about that feel-good feeling

However, what drives an average person to take a risk for a selfie is dopamine, said Dr Alloway.

"When we see a 'like' or a positive comment on our feed or post, there's a huge dopamine rush and that's a feel-good hormone."

Dopamine also helps to reinforce a certain behaviour, so if a picture gets a lot of likes or positive attention, it encourages the person to do it again, said the psychologist.

The study suggested youth and tourists are more frequently affected because of the desire to "be cool".

Dr Alloway said there were two reasons why the youth were more affected: an underdeveloped brain and the notion of invincibility.

"The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that helps you make rational decisions — is still under-developed," she said, adding that a notion of invincibility in the teenage years makes youth more vulnerable to this sort of behaviour.

Russia: Among the leading countries with fatal selfie incidents

Russia was among the countries with the highest number of fatal selfie incidents, said the study.

In 2016, a 12-year-old schoolgirl died after climbing over a balcony to take a selfie. She reportedly took the photo while sitting on a railing on the 17th floor of her apartment building. Police believe she lost her balance and fell to the ground.

Only a few months ago, another schoolgirl died after climbing an electrical transformer near Moscow to take a selfie but was burned alive after receiving an electric shock.

Although it hasn't led to any known deaths, a lake in Siberia, Russia, started attracting Instagrammers for its turquoise-coloured water but the lake was not what it seemed.

Despite looking like paradise at first glance, the lake — nicknamed the Siberian Maldives — is actually an industrial dump.

Instagrammer Alexei Cherenkov posted a picture of himself crossing the polluted water on an inflatable unicorn. He said he went there to get a nice picture because his "city is grey and this is one of the most beautiful places available."

"The rash has already disappeared, but I would not recommend testing this water," he lamented of his experience.

A similar thing happened in Spain in July when several people fell ill after bathing in Monte Neme — a toxic dump in Galicia, northern Spain — after mistaking it for an Instagram-friendly turquoise lake.

Some Instagrammers said they had skin irritations and stomach problems.

But Spain has not gone without deaths. This month, two British men died after falling from about 10 to 12 metres when they tried to take a selfie in Alicante, said authorities.

Deaths after falling from high places have also occurred in other European cities

In Lyon last year, a 20-year-old woman died when she fell from a crane she had climbed to take a selfie.

In Milan, a 15-year-old girl died after climbing to the top of a shopping centre and falling 40 metres in the ventilation duct in 2018. A month before, a 20-year-old man lost his life after an eight-metre fall into a lake.

In Liguria, Italian authorities set up barriers to prevent people from crossing across railways to take photos of the Italian Riviera coastline after a man got seriously injured that way.

Credit: Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane

Earlier this year, a man fell from the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare, Ireland, while taking a selfie. The man is believed to have been an Indian national studying in Dublin.

But don't people realise the danger these risky behaviours present?

Dr Alloway said that when time pressure is added to decision making, people tend to make impulsive decisions.

Taking the example of snapping a quick selfie with a bear, Dr Alloway explained: "It's this idea that I only have a few seconds to snap a picture with the bear, I'm more like to make an impulsive decision because of the time pressure."

"The brain is wired to minimise loss, so we tend to think 'I better do it now or I'll lose my chance, the bear will walk away'."

So how can we deter people from risky behaviour?

Since the youth is more likely to make risky decisions, Dr Alloway said one way to avoid a tragedy was to help them recognise their lack of invincibility and create awareness.

In the spirit of creating awareness, the Russian Interior Ministry produced a leaflet and PSA video and website warning about the danger of risky social media photography and videography.

"A cool selfie could cost you your life," it says with stick figures for examples of how someone might die while trying to capture a thrilling selfie.

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