How Social Media Can Lead to Avalanche Accidents

The ‘everywhereness’ of social media demands rethinking backcountry decision-making.

“Hold my beer and watch this.” The famous last words of a redneck, as the joke goes. But, could “take my picture and post this” be the last words of millennial backcountry skiers and snowboarders? It would seem very possible. The latest human factor in avalanche terrain decision-making is the pressure of social media and the influence of an omnipresent digital group dynamic.

At the International Snow Science Workshop held at Breckenridge, Colorado, earlier this month, State University of New York at Plattsburg Associate Professor Jerry Isaak presented his paper “Social Media and Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain.” Isaak explained that decision-making and risk-taking in backcountry terrain is highly influenced by heuristic issues. Our human desire to be accepted by those we respect or seeking the acceptance of those we want to notice us will many times silence that cautious internal dialogue. We convince ourselves to engage in dangerous activities due to social influence. In the digital age, Kodak Courage has morphed into Facebook Fame and Instagram Celebrity. And that social influence is omnipresent. We carry it in the smartphone in our pocket.

In his paper, Isaak describes acceptance and social facilitation as the major heuristic influencers of backcountry “digital natives,” millennial off-piste practitioners who are experts in the creation and consumption of social media content. Wanting others to like us or to think we are cool is not new to the psychology of risk-taking, but the constant pull of a perpetual “virtual presence” is. Other people nearby or present increases risk-taking. This is magnified in consideration of the worldwide digital audience that is almost constantly logged on.

As Isaak describes in his paper, Facebook reports 1.57 billion mobile active users and 1.71 billion active monthly users, 90 percent of which are 18 to 29-years-old. 92 percent of American teenagers, 13 to 17-years-old, are online daily, 24 percent of which are “almost constantly” interacting with social platforms. Our smartphones continuously link us to a plugged-in social network. Decisions in avalanche terrain are not isolated to an individual’s experience or a single event. They are choices made within the digital social world, an online world that exists everywhere. Everyday happenings and commonplace occurrences are consumed by the digital masses, of which approval is the paramount motivator. If one is posting about pumpkin spice lattes, then it is safe to say that skiing virgin powder snow is must post content. In order to capture that content social media backcountry users are not only willing but also feel pressured to push further into avalanche prone terrain. These locations may be remote, however, they are surely not isolated.

True solitude is not possible in the digital age. Cory Richards and Adam Ballinger documented their attempt to summit Everest without oxygen via Snapchat. Even Buzz Aldrin is in the social media conversation, claiming the first-ever “selfie in space” while completing his spacewalk during the Gemini 12 mission in 1966. Every piece of outdoor adventure content, from film to web series to print, has a social media component. No place on earth, or outer space for that matter, is unreachable from the human desire to say “Hey, look at me!”

There exists a blending and blurring of our digital identities and our physical selves. We are everywhere, all at once, all of the time. And the compulsion to share this is real. Isaak writes, “The gradual blurring of lines and often wholesale integration of the digital and the ‘real’ world represents a profound shift in social relations with potentially major implications for understanding the influence of ‘presence’ in heuristic decision making.”

In order to curb the effects of the digital social identity on backcountry users, educators need adopt an updated approach on the subject. The internalization of peer pressure and group dynamics is commonplace in avalanche education curriculum. The pressure to post and join the outdoor adventure social media landscape is as real a determining human factor of avalanche terrain risk-taking as perceived knowledge of conditions or terrain familiarity. While snowpit analysis is more straightforward than heuristics and social media influence, Isaak argues that digital social facilitation and acceptance need also be included into the canon of avalanche education. He writes:

“The rapid advance of social media into remote environments, and the resulting ‘invisible pressure’ of everywhereness on many digital natives, appears to require a reassessment in the way avalanche educators introduce the topics of human factors and decision making. An updated approach to these topics would not minimize the importance and effectiveness of simple decision making tools; it would, however, directly consider the powerful effects of social media on the lives of many, if not most, students.”

Isaak points to what famed Canadian helicopter skiing guide Roger Atkins said, “Staying alive in avalanche terrain probably has more to do with mastering yourself than mastering any knowledge of avalanches.”

Photo by kcxd


Showing 6 comments
  • Hilary

    The people at most risk probably aren’t the ones sitting in an avalanche class to begin with. As stated pressure to perform is always there both real pressure from self and sometimes imagined pressure from others. The thing that has changed is the potential (and I stress the potential because nobody has a billion Fakebook followers) audience and incentive has increased.

    A lot of content is put out by people whose job it is to make it. They will always have a very high incentive to do things that appear or do risk more although they are more likely to be knowledgeable and take counter measures. Think the requirements around posting #ad and sponsored content will be helpful to people especially young ones lacking self acceptance and seeking to be like others or impress them instead of being inspired by others content.

    Making judgments of risk are about value. Value is not a scientific fact you can lecture people into changing.

    • Nick

      I completely disagree with this statement from Hilary. It’s full of generalizations and seems to be quite removed from the reality of mountain / snowsports as well.

      In my experience, the folks out there getting after it….the ones actually in harms’ way are indeed taking classes and reading books. Not wanting to die a painful death is a pretty basic element of being human. While there will always be unwitting and inexperienced gapers who find their way into some complicated backcountry terrain, by and large folks don’t want ‘today’ to be their last.

      And yes, you can teach risk acceptance.

      • Hilary

        Where did I imply anyone has a death wish? Not that some people don’t purposely take extra risk as the point or you’d ski groomed resort peaks.

        I sure you can teach judgment /risk assessment or acceptance (whatever that has do with it) but that’s different from making it. When you make a decision it’s implicitly a value judgment. Is this worth the risk? Can I do it in a safer way that still looks good on Instagram? ETC. I’m sure these classes do a lot of good but not cure being human decision making.

        Most statements are generalization because no specific person or statistics were mentioned.

  • Kayleigh

    Interesting article. Plattsburgh has an “H” in it; my alma mater :-)!

  • Joe Maher

    This does not apply only to skiing, snow boarding, and other activities in areas where avalanches could occur. I have witnessed a rock climber dangling by one hand underneath an overhang yelling for someone to take a photo. The number of GoPro cameras out there in all activities of an adventurous nature is indicative of the idea that this is not unique to the winter world of snow and ice activities. It exists across the entire spectrum of outdoor adventure.

  • Brian

    In my opinion while social media is the new kid on the block….you could also blame then advertising, gear company’s, magazines etc…..photographers…….why stop at social media…… could blame the oitdoor industry in general for creating a dangerous sport or situation by making it poplar or acceptable to accept risk,,,,splashy gear ads….powder magazine etc….ski movies……we’re all to blame …….for risk acceptance .judgement based on our values……created by the thought in our brain to be somebody………….

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