A woman taking a selfie atop a skyscraper
A selfie taken on a New York skyscraper. Photo via Pixabay

According to a recent report released by the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 259 people worldwide died while taking “selfies” between October 2011 and November 2017. Yes, we are talking about photos that people take of themselves, often using a smartphone, to share on social media. There is even an unfortunate name for such deaths, and for any selfie taken while in harm’s way. They’re called “killfies,”and a flurry of recent articles on the topic has even led some to casually dub them an epidemic.

While we can learn from this trend, it is quite a stretch to declare “killfies” an epidemic. Characterizing it as such diminishes the severity and importance of other epidemics we are currently facing in the United States, such as the opioid overdose epidemic.

Opioids were involved in almost 50,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control, or almost 70 percent of all drug overdose deaths. On average, more than five Americans died of an opioid overdose per hour in 2017. San Diego County alone experienced almost 400 deaths that year due to prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl. Driven by a huge increase in opioid availability and misuse, the unprecedented rise in drug overdose deaths since 1999, along with an almost parallel increase in suicides, has caused American life expectancy to decline for the first time since World War II.

Killfies, while troubling, simply do not approach those epidemic proportions.

One thing overdose deaths and selfie deaths do have in common is that they tend to affect people with higher thresholds for risk-taking. That means young people are generally more vulnerable. It should be no surprise that the average age of those dying while taking a selfie is about 23, while more opioid overdose deaths are occurring in the 25-to-34-year-old cohort than any other.

Selfie deaths also beg a larger question related to the overall health and well-being of Americans, particularly young people, and that is, “Why are we so psychologically attached to our mobile devices and social media that some are even willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the perfect Instagram post or Snapchat story?”

In this era of digital connection, sense of self is measured by the currency of likes, follows, and subscribers on social media. Sadly, these numbers often drive young people’s perception of their own success or failure as a human being. That is why some would risk their lives to capture breathtaking, death-defying moments to be shared on social media. Such posts and the responses they generate attract followers and fans, and drive a sense of self-worth and purpose.

So, how do we change this? How do we help young people recalculate value and purpose as being less about capturing and sharing a story, and more about living it instead? It begins with delaying the age at which they are first exposed consistently and frequently to technology and social media. Just as we know with alcohol and other drug use—the younger people begin drinking or using drugs to intoxication, the more likely they are to develop an addiction in their lifetime. It appears the same may be true with prolonged and frequent exposure to certain technology at a young age.

Both drugs and today’s video game and social technology cause the brain to release a reinforcing, pleasure-causing chemical called dopamine. At some point, for some people who are over-exposed to substances or technology, the brain changes and loses its ability to naturally release dopamine without those stimuli to trigger the chemical’s release. It is at this point that say the brain has become disordered, or addicted.

While there are longitudinal studies in the works exploring the long-term impact of early and frequent technology use on the developing brain, one thing is clear: technology and social media are changing the way our young people develop, cope, socialize and learn. If we don’t pay attention to trends and early warning signs—like 259 people dying while taking a selfie—it’s possible we may one day be facing an issue that rivals that of the opioid overdose epidemic.

Jessica Wong is a national expert on teen mental health, technology use and addiction issues, and a certified prevention professional at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation—a nonprofit addiction treatment leader with 17 sites nationwide including an outpatient clinic on El Camino Real in Carmel Valley. Wong is speaking at a free community event at the Bahia Resort Hotel on May 8.