Dr. Levi Harrison, a San Franciscan orthopaedic surgeon, believes that ‘selfie’ culture, a phenomenon of the modern digital-age, is impairing the musculoskeletal function of some social media users.[i]
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘selfie’, which was crowned ‘word of 2013’, as:
‘A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website’. [ii]
Dr. Harrison claims to have seen increased numbers of patients exhibiting symptoms of nerve inflammation, or ‘median nerve neuritis’, as well as numbness, tingling and sharp pains, affecting hands, wrists and arms.
It is his belief that this group of patients is suffering from ‘selfie wrist’, a form of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), caused by prolonged hyperflexion of the wrist inwards:
‘Your elbow is not designed to be flexed for an hour at a time’.
In September of last year, Kim Kardashian, the American television personality, was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. In this instance, she was not diagnosed with ‘selfie wrist’, as her condition was (allegedly) the result of holding her mobile phone in one position for too long without moving.
So, are ‘selfies’ a genuine public health risk?
Rawhide, an American non-profit organisation, has previously denounced ‘selfies’ as an example of ‘social media narcissism’. [iii] In 2015, the Rawhide team concluded that ‘selfies’ could pose an environmental health risk.
Research showed that 1,000 ‘selfies’ were uploaded to Instagram© every 10 seconds. This equates to 6,000 every minute, 360,000 every hour and 8,640,000 every day.
Instagram© accounted for just 8% of shared images on social media platforms in 2015. Across all platforms, 93 million ‘selfies’ were taken every day.
Though these statistics are alarming, it is important to contextualise the issue. According to a Global Digital Report, produced by We Are Social and Hootsuite, social media users have grown by an average of 13% year-on-year. In January 2018, there were 3.196 billion users worldwide.[iv]
It can be implied that, on average, each user takes no more than 1 ‘selfie’ per day. Although a millennial is expected to take 25,700 ‘selfies’ in his or her lifetime (average life expectancy of 25,375 days)[v], this would not constitute repetitive strain capable of causing injury.
In spite of this, future incidence of so-called ‘selfie wrist’ is much dependant on the changing psychology of social media users. Aside from rising levels of narcissism, in I Selfie Therefore I Am (2016), Elisa Godart, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher, discusses that ‘selfie’ culture is exacerbated by obsessive behaviours, body dysmorphia, depression and lapses of consciousness.[vi]
In an extreme case, Danny Bowman, a British teenager diagnosed with body dysmorphia, would lock himself in his bedroom and take up to 200 photos of himself per day.[vii]
As a result, one might predict that indicators of ‘selfie wrist’ will be observed in patients with mental health conditions triggered by social media use, such as addiction.
On this basis, forecasting the long-term risk is going to be problematic, as clinicians recognise that estimating the potential effects of online social networking on mental health is difficult.[viii]
Ultimately, from a legal perspective, if ‘selfie wrist’ were to be accepted by medical bodies as a genuine condition with lasting effects, it could potentially be argued that CTS claimants, who bring claims in negligence against their employers, have contributed towards their occupational disease.
[i] Mary Kekatos, ‘Are you at risk of 'selfie wrist'? Doctor warns scores more patients have numbness and tingling caused by twisting to get the perfect shot’ (27 December 2018 Daily Mail) <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-6533181/Doctor-warns-rise-cases-selfie-wrist.html> accessed 6 January 2019.
[iii] ‘Selfie Obsession: The Rise of Social Media Narcissism’ (29 December 2015 Rawhide) https://www.rawhide.org/blog/infographics/selfie-obsession-the-rise-of-social-media-narcissism/> accessed 6 January 2019.
[iv] ‘Digital in 2018: World’s internet users pass the 4 billion mark’ (30 January 2018 We Are Social) <https://wearesocial.com/uk/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018> accessed 7 January 2019.
[v] Julia Glum, ‘Millennials Selfies: Young Adults Will Take More Than 25,000 Pictures Of Themselves During Their Lifetimes: Report’ (International Business Times 22 September 2015) <https://www.ibtimes.com/millennials-selfies-young-adults-will-take-more-25000-pictures-themselves-during-2108417> accessed 7 January 2019.
[vi] Celia Walden, ‘We take 1 million selfies every day - but what are they doing to our brains?’ (24 May 2016 The Telegraph) <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/we-take-1-million-selfies-every-day---but-what-are-they-doing-to/> accessed 6 January 2019.
[viii] Pantic, Igor. “Online social networking and mental health” Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking vol. 17,10 (2014): 652-7 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183915/> accessed 7 January 2019.