Healthy Selfies?

As a practicing emergency physician for the past 27 years, I have used technology to care for emergency patients in many different ways. Recently, I got a dose of technology from the other side.  A college student, who was so intoxicated that her friends thought she might stop breathing, was brought by ambulance to our hospital.  After a few hours, she sobered up enough to ask if she could take a selfie with me in the emergency department. Despite the great opportunity to be in a new realm of Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter friends, I politely refused. But, it got me thinking.

Surely, the mushroom cloud of selfies that is e-streaming around the planet can have more than a self-indulgent purpose.  Can selfies be used to educate about health and promote healthy behaviors?  Maybe I should have agreed to that selfie with the recovering college student while I held up a sign that said “Know Your Limits – Don’t Binge Drink!”

We know that binge drinking is epidemic on college campuses, leads to tragic loss of life, and is a key factor in sexual assaults and other violence.  We see the ugly consequences every party night in our emergency departments. And selfies chronicle these situations and behaviors – drinking to the point of loss of control, sexually provocative images, risky driving. These selfies can seem entertaining and are often shared, even to the point of “going viral”.  Sometimes regret follows.

Just as peer messages and images exert substantial influence in negative ways, maybe they can be a powerful influence in promoting new approaches and behaviors. Somehow, those staid public health messages on TV or in print media don’t seem to have much of an effect on behaviors. Maybe selfies by influential peers can have a role in promoting positive behaviors. What if the college student took a selfie and messaged: “All dressed up to go out, but alcohol free tonight!” Or, “I’m partying, but you won’t see me passed out in 2 hours!” Or, “I’m here, and I’m in control.”

My selfies typically show a nice trout that I just caught, so I’m not one to influence college students of today via my smart phone.  But I would implore those young adults who want to do something positive about harmful binge drinking and campus violence to get creative with their selfies and disseminate images that will tell a different story about how people can socialize.

I look forward to the moment, when recognizing a healthy selfie in a college student, I can rush to take a selfie with YOU!

Brian Zink (@Zink_Brian) is Professor and Chair of Emergency Medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He is an essayist and a poet, and he wrote Anyone, Anything, Anytime — A History of Emergency Medicine, the definitive work on emergency medicine in the United States.

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