Young men jump from a pier into Port Phillip Bay. Photo: Leigh Henningham
First published in The Age, 30 January, 2016
By Peter Barrett
Summer is the season for increased water-related mishaps but could social media be fuelling a new type of risky thrill-seeking behaviour?
Last week a teenaged boy was seriously injured after diving from a pier at Half Moon Bay, while a young woman hit her head attempting a backflip from a cliff into water near Mount Martha.
The latter case received international coverage because the location – called The Pillars – is tagged to numerous Instagram and video file sharing accounts.
Although the spot has been a popular destination for years, some people worry that increasing online depictions not only increase traffic but also raise the risk of serious injury by exerting a new kind of “digital” peer pressure.
“It’s almost like a dare they’ve got to do,” says Dr Andrew Nunn, Director of Austin Health’s Victorian Spinal Cord Service. The father of five (aged 17 to mid-20s) may not be a psychologist but he is on the frontline of serious spinal injuries.
He worries teenagers are not only unaware of the risks associated with jumping into bodies of water but further impaired by a desire to live up to online expectations.
“People are really trying to create this reputation-based persona of themselves. Why the hell would you take a picture of yourself jumping off a rock?” According to Monash University’s Victorian Injuries Surveillance Unit there have been 803 admissions to hospitals in the past 10 years related to diving or jumping into water.
The number has increased from 58 in 2004 to 84 in 2013/14 (although the latter figure is likely to be higher because of a change in hospital admission reporting in 2012). Males accounted for 74 per cent of admissions, more than half of injuries were to the head, face or neck and the highest number of cases were aged between 15 and 24.
Western Sydney University’s associate professor Amanda Third rejects the idea that social media is fuelling or glorifying a rise in risk taking behaviour. The cultural studies theorist is head of the university’s Young And Well Cooperative Research Centre, which tries to harness young people’s technological practices to support their mental health and wellbeing.
“The work that we’ve done shows that there are some kids out there that will see images and go, ‘That’s cool.’ But then they will have friends who will say, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you want to do that?’ Equally, there are these videos that circulate that show people hurting themselves and are circulated as sort of joke videos … I think [they] play a regulatory effect on young people’s risk taking practices.”
While the link between social media and injuries to young people may be in question basic physics is not. Before you jump, says Austin’s Dr Andrew Nunn, check that the minimum depth is at least five feet (152 centimetres) to cushion your fall and always jump feet-first.
“It doesn’t take much to break your neck for Christ’s sake. And when you do break your neck your chances of being a quadriplegic and a complete quadriplegic [a complete loss of function below the point of injury] are enormously high. That’s the concern. It’s not like people can get their spinal cords repaired; and it all happens in an instant.”