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Don’t Risk Your Life to Save Your Smartphone

Daniel Bean
Editorial Assistant
Yahoo Tech
July 8, 2014

Don’t Risk Your Life to Save Your Smartphone

Daniel Bean
Editorial Assistant
Yahoo Tech
July 8, 2014
Broken cellphone
Broken cellphone

Early last month, two people died in Xinxiang City, China, after a woman dropped her cellphone into an open pit toilet. The woman’s husband rushed down into the toilet to retrieve it but quickly lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen, as reported by South China Morning Post. The man’s mother, his wife, and several neighbors dropped down to try to aid in his rescue, but they too passed out. A total of six people were pulled from the pit, and the husband and his mother died from the effects of suffocation shortly after.

This type of reckless abandon in favor of one’s cellphone is unfortunately no rare happening. Now seems like a good time to remind everyone: It’s not worth it.

Deaths caused by ill-fated attempts to rescue a phone have been popping up all over the news lately. In Chicago this January, two people died when similar circumstances saw a man break through the frozen top of the Chicago River in an attempt to retrieve his phone. Two friends, a young man and a woman, went in to save him, according to ABC 7 in Chicago, but only the male rescuer survived the tragedy.

Also in the Chicago area, a 55-year-old man was crushed to death last year by a garbage compactor while searching for his lost phone. After his wife reported him missing to police, the Chicago Tribune reported, a neighbor informed searchers that the man thought he may have mistakenly thrown his cellphone out, and his body was found later inside their building’s trash compactor.

What’s driving these deaths? According to one psychologist, it’s more than a desire to save money.

“Although cost of these devices is likely a factor in an attempted rescue or protection, it perhaps goes beyond that,” Dr. Bryan Reuther, psychologist and assistant professor of human services at Florida’s Indian River State College, told Yahoo Tech.

We’re willing to lay ourselves on the line for our cellphones, Reuther believes, because so many different parts of our lives are now brought together by these phones. Some owners may even see these pieces of glass and plastic as representative of the bond to the people they use the phones to communicate with.

“Today’s smartphones contain our personal information, including financial information, pictures, and contacts, all of which is important and meaningful in our everyday lives,” Reuther explained. “And since our social lives are wrapped up in these devices through these various means, they become our memory systems and modes of communication, the very means in which we feel connected to others and the world.”

Understanding a personal cellphone as being more valuable than “just another expensive gadget,” it shouldn’t be as hard to imagine how the above accidents happened, especially if the owners failed to see the danger in their attempted retrievals. And, of course, none of these people went to rescue their phones thinking death was a possibility. 

Still, though, we’re even seeing deaths during attempted smartphone rescues when danger is imminent. At least two fatal train accidents on record in the past year were caused by distraught cellphone owners venturing onto active train tracks to retrieve their dropped devices. As reported by SFGate.com, a Bay Area California teen was struck and killed this March when, seconds after the freight train’s horn sounded, she dropped her phone, attempted to pick it up, but wasn’t able to clear the tracks in time to avoid being hit. And a young man in Bronx, New York, last June jumped down onto subway tracks after his phone had fallen. Witnesses told 1010 WINS radio that he was struck and killed in what almost seemed like a “suicide.”

And how about instances of armed robbery? The epidemic of “Apple picking,” or thefts of iPhones, had been rising in recent years. (It has dropped since Apple installed anti-theft software in its phones, starting in late 2013.) Tragically, as the Huffington Post pointed out in 2013, these robberies too often lead to murder, as victims attempt to hold onto their devices. 

A teen was shot to death this February after refusing to give his iPhone up in an attempted robbery. The phone’s owner was asked to hand over his phone and forced into what The Advocate called a “fistfight” when the alleged shooter, a believed accomplice to the robber and also a teen, opened fire and killed the young man, his iPhone still in his pocket. Two people have been arrested in that incident.

And a similar murder occurred last year in Bronx, New York, when a 26-year-old man was held up for his iPhone while walking home from work. The man refused to give in to the robber; he was shot and killed. Two suspects were eventually found and brought in by authorities on charges of murder and accomplice to murder, the Huffington Post reports.

Reuther feels that events like these last two, quite literally staring danger in the face (in the form of a gun) and still not letting the phone go, might have more to do with attachment, a topic on which he has published works of his own, than just the net loss of money or a valuable possession.

“We become attached to this technology because of our reliance on it, and in a way these devices become part of us,” he asserts. “Without them, we may get anxious or upset and even feel disconnected, as though we do not exist amongst our social group.”

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s that phones are not worth risking life and limb for. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, they are full of sentimental and personal information. But those things are nowhere near as important as your life.

Have questions, comments, or just want to tell me something funny? Email me at danbean@yahoo-inc.com.