A preposterously popular story out on Mashable today makes a claim uniquely suited to the anxieties of our always-connected age: In the past year, reporter Cailey Rizzo says, selfies have caused more deaths than shark attacks.
It’s crazy! It’s surprising! It’s worth telling all your Facebook and Twitter friends about, which more than 50,000 people have done. It also makes no sense whatsoever: Rizzo’s comparing oranges and apples.
To wit: A shark attack is a direct mechanism of death — a thing that produces actual, physical harm. A selfie, on the other hand, is what health statisticians might classify as an “underlying mechanism” or an “intermediate mechanism,” depending on the exact circumstances: a thing that’s involved in, and maybe precipitates, an accident, but doesn’t actually cause any physical harm. (Unless your phone electrocutes you or something, but that’s a different situation.)
That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s actually pretty huge. Let’s turn to the World Health Organization to see how it breaks down the issue. WHO gives the example of a woman tripping over something on the floor and hitting her head on the counter; you’d never say that the thing on the floor killed her — that’s just the underlying mechanism. (Also, stupid.) The direct mechanism was hitting her head, just as in most “selfie deaths,” the direct mechanism is being struck by a car, falling down, what have you.
We could, for the sake of argument, compare the number of deaths from falling down the stairs to the number of deaths from shark attacks. Or we could compare the number of deaths while taking selfies to the number of deaths while swimming in the ocean.
But if we did that, we’d come to the boring conclusion that selfie-related deaths are total anomalies: a microscopic sliver of the big ole Death pie chart, scarcely even worth mentioning.
Why mention it in the first place, you might ask. After all, people get injured as a result of their distractions every day! They mess with the radio and rear-end another driver; they think about their next vacation and burn themselves on a stove. Radios and day-dreaming aren’t novel, however; we aren’t fetishizing and dramatizing and agonizing over them, the way we are smartphones.
Someday, I presume, those obsessions will fade, and we’ll start treating our phones like just another tool. Until that day, however, please relax: Your selfies are not killing you.
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