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Russia’s ‘Safe-Selfie’ Campaign: Will It Work?

Telling teens what NOT to do is like inviting them to do it

The Russian authorities have launched a “safe selfie” campaign in response to a series of deaths and serious injuries among selfie-takers who, in the pursuit of capturing an extreme selfie shots, have suffered numerous accidents such as falling off bridges, receiving self-inflicted gunshot wounds and being bitten by venomous snakes.

Trying to keep people safe is good. Will it work? Probably not. The Russian booklet shows all the ways NOT to take a selfie, including hanging from buildings, standing in front of moving trains or posing with wild animals or firearms. It doesn’t address the underlying motivation for risky behaviors or grandstanding for approval, particularly among teens and young people. The citizens most likely to be impacted by this campaign are parents of the extreme selfie takers, not the selfie takers themselves.

 Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs
Source: Source: Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs

When you consider the developmental arc of maturation, it’s not surprising that young people take the most selfies. The young are more socially active and eager to connect. It’s actually what they are supposed to be doing into order to develop into stand alone, responsible adults. It is developmentally appropriate to explore one’s identity and one’s position relative to their social structures, particularly their peers. It’s also not surprising that the young should take more selfies at an age when they look pretty good, too.

Young people are responsible for most risky activities. Selfies didn’t invent showing off—the primal urge among adolescents to show how tough they are in the face of danger. James Dean says it all. It is a primitive dance that is instinctively inherent in establishing social order until the ability to self-regulate kicks in. It gets easier as you get older. The prefrontal cortex in the human brain—which impacts emotional maturity, self image and judgment--is not fully developed until our mid-twenties. This inhibits a young person’s ability to evaluate risk and long-term consequences of their actions.

In trying to do a good thing, the Russian initiative my inadvertently make #extremeselfies more appealing by highlighting their forbidden and dangerous aspects. Programs in the US like Scared Straight and D.A.R.E found this out the hard way. They started by exposing kids to the horrors of prison and drug use, trying to ‘scare them straight’. But it didn’t work. In some cases it had the opposite effect. They have resorted to that tried and true method of teaching self-regulation, critical thinking and good decision making. It takes a lot more work but the skills are transferable.

Initiatives like the Safe Selfie Campaign, while well-intentioned, neglect the fact that people do things for a reason—whether they are aware of it or not. Behaviors such as taking extreme selfies have value to the selfie-taker, whether it’s social recognition, attention, bolstering self-image or the physical reward from adrenalin. Whether you view these as good or bad things doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the extreme self-taker is getting some kind of emotional payoff from what they are doing. Social media has amplified some of these effects, but it didn’t invent the urges teenagers have to show off to any, and all, who are watching.

The only real way to keep kids safe is to teach them to make good decisions, to show them how to say no when they need to, and to be available when they need help and answers. That takes conversations based on trust. It takes a willingness to suspend our anxieties to listen rationally to something that makes us want to scream “Seriously? You want to do what?” If you are scared by the prospect of your kids taking extreme selfies, have a conversation. Start with voicing your concerns and then listen to your kids’ points of view. The key to this type of conversation is to have built some trust from an early age. The earlier you start talking with your kids about technology (in lieu of lecturing at them), the better. Don’t make the mistake of putting down all the new technologies and apps. So maybe you don’t see why someone needs to take selfies or text 150 times a day. They probably don’t get golf either. Sit down as ask why it makes their day better rather than say, “Can't you put that phone down for a MINUTE?” Selfies won’t be the first or the last media or technology-based issue that shows up.

Keep in mind that if you want behavior to change, you need to show people (your kids included) how the ‘replacement’ behavior will deliver an equally valuable pay-off. This is why prosocial campaigns with celebrities work. Celebrities get kids’ attention and provide a role model that they admire to reframe a behavior in a way that it’s something they want to eschew or emulate. When Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga pour ice water over their heads for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, or Ellen DeGeneres says “It Gets Better,” it makes kids want to get involved. This biggest “we should have asked a media psychologist” mistake out there right now is an anti-smoking campaign that shows celebrities smoking as “unpaid endorsers”. All they are showing is someone who kids admire with a cigarette. That part if processed LONG before any text gets read. If kids already like Rihanna, the implied negative won’t create even a small dent of cognitive dissonance.

A booklet on how not to take selfies gets attention—it is the first of its kind—but will not have the impact they want. I hope it doesn’t inadvertently make it worse. The handout is getting lots of Internet traction--most of it in jest. Personally, I’d love to see a campaign spearheaded by a revered celebrity or athlete that implies that such life-threatening selfie-taking is a total selfish waste and that, given the state of the world, they can do better. Why not challenge people to devote energy to figuring out how to extreme solutions to a problem for someone else and share a #selfiesolution on Instagram.

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