Selficide: The Dangerous New Addiction

"Bikini Hiker" Gigi Wu is the latest to die in pursuit of the perfect selfie

Extreme selfie addiction is reaching deadly proportions as people are becoming hooked on the dopamine rush that obliterates self-preservation.

Over the weekend, yet another person died by "selficide," the term used to describe deaths caused by trying to take the perfect selfie in a risky situation. Gigi Wu, known on social media as the Bikini Hiker, was famous for posing on mountain summits in nothing but a two-piece bathing suit. On Saturday, the 36-year-old Wu fell 65 feet into a ravine during a solo hike up Taiwan's Yushan Mountain. While she was able to reach emergency services via satellite phone, bad weather made a rescue attempt impossible and Wu died from hypothermia. Her body was recovered on Monday.

Selficides were already in the news last weekend, when it was revealed that an Indian couple who fell to their death at Yosemite National Park had alcohol in their system. Meenakshi Moorthy and Vishnu Viswanath, who plummeted 800 feet while attempting a selfie at the park's Taft Overlook, traveled extensively in order to document their intrepid feats. The self-described daredevil couple had a travel blog, Holidays and Happily Ever Afters, and a popular Instagram with 26,000 followers that offered photos of them perched on cliff edges and jumping from airplanes.

"Selfies are the new drug addiction and it's an epidemic," says New York psychotherapist Gilda Carle, author of I'm Worth Loving! Here's Why. "It's a dopamine addiction and people think it's so easy to do – because it doesn't 'cost' anything… except your life."

There's even an exhaustive Wikipedia page devoted to selfie-related injuries and deaths.

Why do people commit selficide?

"People do these [extreme] things for a temporary feeling of omnipotence and it is very much like a drug," Carle said. "They may think they're avoiding true addiction, but if they are living for the numbers on social media they aren't living for themselves, just camouflaging the feeling of emptiness inside. They can't sleep without checking social media numbers, they can't get up in the morning without checking them and they are totally addicted to being loved by other people. You have to ask, 'what is happening to our culture that we have to have the external applause to make us feel better inside about who we are?' The whole world has become Kardashian-esque and we're following the Kardashian lead in thinking that this [risky behavior] is the road to fame and fortune."

How bad is the problem of selficides?

According to a report published last year in the Journal of Primary Medicine and Family Care in India, from 2011 to 2017 some 259 people died in pursuit of the perfect selfie—with the highest number of incidents reported in India, followed by Russia, the United States and Pakistan. Researchers concluded that "no-selfie zones" should be established around tourist areas, especially near bodies of water, mountain peaks and tall buildings.

Dr. Michael Brustein, another New York psychotherapist, believes the issue is exacerbated when people are on vacation. "Travel has become sort of the new status symbol. It's the new house or car—a new outlet to express your power or freedom," he said, adding, "And what better way to do that then by documenting it with an extreme selfie– the place, the perfect body and creating a superhero self—an exhibitionist's need gone awry as they try to fulfill a need they can't self-validate." It's a competitive arena, and your selfie has to be the best.

"We are creating the new norm which perpetuates, builds and gets crazier by the minute," adds Brustein.

Selficide Selfie Deaths
According to a report published last year in the Journal of Primary Medicine and Family Care in India, from 2011 to 2017 some 259 people died in pursuit of the perfect selfie—with the highest number of incidents reported in India, followed by Russia, the United States and Pakistan. Getty Images

What's being done about selficides?

In India, several people have been admitted to psychiatric institutions for selfie addiction and body dysmorphia, according to India Today. In Russia, the growing number of selfie-related deaths prompted the government to launched a public-safety campaign with easy-to-decipher icons warning people not to take pictures of themselves with loaded firearms, near wild animals, in the path of an oncoming train or while driving.

"Unfortunately we have noted recently that the number of accidents caused by lovers of self-photography is constantly increasing," Yelena Alexeyeva, an aide to Russia's interior minister, told The Guardian that same year. "Since the beginning of the year, we are talking about some hundred cases of injuries for sure." They included a woman who accidentally shot herself in the head while taking a selfie with a loaded pistol (she survived), two men who tried to document themselves holding a hand grenade with the pin pulled out (they died), and a teen who electrocuted himself to death while taking a selfie on a railway track.

Making things worse is the selfie-takers own sense of infallibility, which can be contagious: "People who consume these pictures and videos and see it working out okay lose a sense of the consequences," Carle said. "It could escalate if the consequences aren't highlighted and people lose sight of their fragility."

Wu seemed to acknowledge the peril in her pastime. On Christmas Eve, Wu—who claimed she spent half the year hiking the world in her bikini—posted an Instagram of her scraped and bruised legs following another fall, which she admitted she was lucky to survive.

Moorthy and Viswanath also seemed to have had a sense of the danger: Last March, Moorthy posted a picture of herself sitting on a ledge at the Grand Canyon, writing "A lot of us, including yours truly, [are fans] of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers. But did you know that wind gusts can be FATAL? Is our life just worth one photo?"

So why did they keep risking their lives? "Once you [take risky selfies] successfully and get reinforced by social media, it creates dopamine and a neural pathway, Carle explains."And to get it again you need to increase the dopamine. The more you do it, the more the neural pathway gets grooved and enriched and it becomes a pattern behavior. Unfortunately, it's so dangerous you can't learn from it—because you die."

Selficide: The Dangerous New Addiction | U.S.