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Could Social Media Be Landing Hikers in Danger? This Study Suggests So.

A group of researchers from University of California, Irvine investigated the link between SAR incidents, park visitation, and Twitter posts. Their conclusions could inform how hikers portray their own adventures—and view those of others—online

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For better or for worse, social media is here to stay, and that’s as true in the outdoors as anywhere else. Most of us have a Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok account, and those platforms have come to play a central role in how hikers share their adventures with each other and the world at large. But while they can be a source of inspiration, a new study suggests that they could be getting some backpackers into serious trouble.

When a tourist or hiker falls from a high place or gets charged while photographing an animal, internet commenters’ knee-jerk reaction is often to blame it on clout-driven selfie-seeking. There’s some evidence that they may not be off base: Researchers in Turkey studied 159 “selfie victims” injured or killed while trying to take photos and found that 43.2% of accidents took place in nature, with cliff edges being a preferred site for selfies. One hiker who gets away with a risky selfie may lead to others doing the same, and certain hiking destinations may be seen with more acceptance than risk over time.

Dr. Zachary Lu of University of California, Irvine and his team decided to quantify that risk. Published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in 2021, their article, The Associations Between Visitation, Social Media Use, and Search and Rescue in United States National Parks, matched SAR and national park visitation stats with social media data to try to determine the relationship between traffic, social posts, and rescues.

Dr. Lu told me that the idea for the project arose from both his love for the outdoors as well as anecdotes of hikers getting themselves into sticky situations in search of social media pictures. He said his process had a goal: “How can we maximize the experience of everyone having fun while keeping them safe, and particularly as it pertains to social media?” 

“We developed this study in order to pilot or encourage the idea of, ‘Hey, what if we looked at numerical data in terms of social media platforms, in our case, Twitter, and do a head to head comparison [to see] if there’s any kind of association with search and rescue incidents in national parks?’” Lu said. From a zoomed-out perspective, he says the study looked principally into visitation and search and rescue visits as a whole, while also evaluating correlations with social media.

Twitter was used to evaluate social media because of existing relationships Dr. Lu’s team had with the University of California, Irvine’s School of Information, which had developed a program called Cloudberry. Using this software, the team was able to evaluate Twitter data “in order to get a historical count of the number of tweets related to certain keywords by area,” said Dr. Lu. He noted that other platforms such as Instagram or Flickr have data that are less available to researchers at this time.

The team procured visitor data from the National Park Service visitor use database and SAR data from the US National Park Service SAR Incidents 2017 Dashboard. They considered recreational visits, developed site stays, backcountry visits, and tweets as independent variables, and SAR incidents and fatalities as dependent variables. As the team noted in their paper, they ended up with—no pun intended—a mountain of data.

Denali helicopter rescue
A rescue team packages a patient for transport on Denali. (Photo: Menno Boermans / Aurora Open via Getty)

 “We analyzed the correlations between 180,216,375 recreational visits, 10,452,835 developed site stays, 1,956,935 backcountry visits, 183,744 tweets, 3,433 SAR incidents, and 181 fatalities that occurred in national parks during 2017,” they wrote.

What were their findings? All three types of visits (recreational, developed site, and backcountry) showed positive correlations with SAR incidents. Backcountry visits had a stronger correlation with fatalities than developed site stays, perhaps related to the inherently riskier nature of the setting. (While the researchers speculated that people calling for help in the backcountry might, on average, be more experienced and skilled than those calling for help in the frontcountry, they noted that their study did not look at experience levels of SAR victims.) 

Those conclusions might not be surprising—the more people head outdoors, after all, the more chances there are for them to get hurt. Social media use, however, turned out to be an even better predictor of people getting into trouble: According to Dr. Lu, the strongest correlation they saw in their study was between tweets and mishaps leading to rescues or fatalities. Besides driving visitors to parks, authors suggest that “social media may be associated with SAR incidents via users motivating others to obtain photos or videos through risky or dangerous means.” 

On this point, Dr. Lu hopes that their research can be a part of the solution by encouraging social media users to share their adventures—and consume others’ summit shots—with safety in mind.

 “Hopefully it encourages people…not necessarily [to use social media] to get themselves in sticky situations, but rather to share about their fun experiences and to motivate others to maybe share their own and build those experiences for themselves,” he says. “Because that ultimately leads to a culture of environmental stewardship, where we can really take care of our environment so that everyone can enjoy it.”

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