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Social Media Sharing Leading to Abuse of Outdoor Venues

17 Oct, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
In at Least One Case, It Was Enough to Close Down a Park

Social media has become the reality show for anyone not important enough to have their own reality show – and it seems the outdoor sports world has become the riskiest stage of all for anyone looking to find their 15 minutes of fame.

Want proof? Outside Magazine has it. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team reports that its missions have increased by 38 percent over the last five years — something they attribute to one-upmanship in the form of people sharing photos and videos of their dangerous activities online. 

The department’s compiled statistics might be laughable – if they weren’t so dire. There were 681 SAR missions in 2017, the highest number ever, up from 491 in 2013. L.A. County is home to numerous outdoor hotspots, from beaches to 50-foot waterfalls to slot canyons to 10,000-foot mountains. And social media has brought in a much wider audience – an audience that simply can’t resist mimicking (and then posting proof they’ve tried) the dangerous stunts they’ve seen others perform.

“People will post videos of themselves jumping off of Hermit Falls or the Malibu rock pool, and they post it in the springtime when there’s a decent amount of water. But now, the water is a lot less, so what used to be a 10-foot pool is now a five-foot pool,” Michael Leum, of the sheriff’s office, told the Los Angeles Times. “You won’t want to be a lawn dart going into that shallow pool.”

It's not just cliff divers, either. In May, a man was mauled to death by a bear (warning: video in link) while trying to take a selfie with it in. In 2015, Colorado’s Waterton Canyon Park had to be closed to the public because too many selfie-stick-bearing tourists were approaching bears to try to out-wilderness each other on social media.That same summer, a woman was gored by a wild bison in Yellowstone National Park after stopping to take a selfie with it and her six-year-old daughter. At the time, it was the fifth bison attack of the year in the park -- and the third involving tourists trying to take photos with the animals. In California, a man had to be rushed to the hospital after he saw a rattlesnake and tried to take a selfie with it.

Ski resorts also see their share of casualties. An article in the Denver Post notes that during the 2015-2016 ski season, 30 people died in avalanches in the U.S., up from 11 in the 2014-2015 season, according to data from Avalanche.org. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more skiers are trekking further out to find pristine mountainsides, without necessarily learning about avalanche safety measures, in part out of a desire to impress friends with videos or selfies posted online. In fact, among the 270 Colorado deaths since 1950, the vast majority were men with a mean age of 29 — an age at which social media use is peaking

“Social media is definitely playing a role in their decision-making,” said Emery Rheam, a 16-year-old from Jackson, Wyoming, who has surveyed teenage skiers about their perspectives on avalanche safety. “But the terrain they are in, that they can reach and ski, it outmatches their education.”

Another problem: social media users rarely come prepared for the risks posed by outdoor venues. Venturing onto a mountain trail, for example, without equipment, correct footwear, flashlights, food or even water. The Los Angeles Times covered an incident in which a teenager hiked to the top of a waterfall while wearing tennis shoes, then slipped and fell 50 feet, sustaining numerous fractures.

Outside Magazine noted that three members of Canadian social media collective, High on Life, died when they were swept over a waterfall while trying to create content for their popular Instagram account and YouTube channel. 

Natural disasters also lure ersatz adventure seekers outside. Just this past summer, government officials in Hawai’i stated they had made numerous arrests in Volcanoes National Park after tourists parked their cars and slipped past roadblocks to take lava selfies. Authorities in Australia apprehended a man who stood in the middle of a forest fire, trying to post to Instagram.

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t stop there. We recommend reading Insider Magazine’s absolutely mind-boggling photo essay, “The 16 Dumbest Things People Have Done in U.S. National Parks."

The collateral damage, unfortunately, is that conscientious athletes who enjoy the outdoors safely, and who want to train in national parks for their own sports – trail running, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, fly fishing, kayaking and similar pursuits – are also kept out, at least until social media junkies find somewhere else to go. Waterton Canyon (a.k.a. Bear Selfie City), for example, is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The area reopened after a two-month shutdown, but authorities are keeping a close watch on visitors – and on social media – to make sure problems don’t recur.

In Hawaii, Volcanoes National Park reopened at the end of September – although rangers have obviously heard far too many questions from curiosity seekers, since the website now contains this notice: Beginning in May, 2018, the lava lake that existed inside Halema‘uma‘u crater disappeared and lava flows have ceased. There is no molten lava or lava glow to see anywhere in or out of the park.

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