Next time you take a ‘selfie’ with your smartphone you may have to put a broader smile on your dial just in case it’s needed later in a crisis.
A new study by the University of Pretoria and Pholosong Hospital in Johannesburg suggests that while your front teeth, which are often visible when smiling on photographs, may be used to positively identify you in case of a mystery death or when you go missing, South Africans are too shy and are not smiling boldly enough. In most cases, researchers noted, the reason for not smiling was insecurity about teeth flaws such as decay.
After assessing more than 1,000 selfies of Gauteng locals that used government clinics, researchers found the majority of study participants did not smile and therefore their photographs could not be used for forensic identification.
Only 39% of selfies showed teeth, and only about 5% of the images showed unique features. In the majority of selfies that were analysed, mouths were either fully or partially closed. In pictures where dentition was visible it was mostly people who had good oral health with no restorations or dental decay.
In contrast, individuals with poor teeth frequently provided a selfie with a closed mouth where their teeth were not visible.
Researchers said the trend was worrying in a country such as SA, where forensic identification of unknown individuals was challenging due to a lack of dental records that was worsened by poor access to modern dentistry.
With more than 22-million people, or 40% of the population, owning smartphones, taking selfies is a common phenomenon. Researchers said given the challenges of forensic identification in SA alternative means of identification such as the use of selfies needed to be explored as dental features in these photographs such as the alignment of teeth, shape and dental anomalies could be used for forensic identification.
Writing in the South African Dental Journal, lead researcher Dr Vimbai Manyukwi and head of the dental department at Pholosong Hospital said: “Selfies are easy to use, low cost and accessible sources from which dental identification could be performed. From this study it was evident that the more teeth seen in a selfie, the higher the likelihood that the investigator would see identifiable dental features.”
The six most common dental features in the study were diastemas, dental jewellery, crowding, a difference in tooth height, discoloured and missing teeth.
The common feature was dental jewellery, mostly gold on the anterior teeth, which was seen on more than one third (38%) of the selfies. The more gold slits one had, the greater was forensic significance.
“The results of the study were contrary to those that were expected and revealed that selfies cannot solve the identification crisis among lower socioeconomic South Africans. The study may not be a true reflection of identifying dental features on selfies as most of the images provided were where the dentition was not visible,” researchers said.
“Considering the growing trend of selfie-taking and the availability of these images, the use of selfies in the forensic identification of individuals still requires further exploration.”
Dental expert and Stellenbosch University emeritus professor Usuf Chikte said the finding which showed that people with tooth decay were embarrassed to smile was not surprising, with evidence showing that it affected their self-esteem and social interactions.
He said the root cause of tooth decay, which affected more than 90% of South Africans was worsened by the consumption of sugary foods, snacks and fizzy drinks.
High levels of tooth decay needed to be radically brought down. “We need to address marketing of sugary food and beverages high in sugar more aggressively, as well as tobacco and alcohol.
“The pervasiveness of tooth decay is primarily due to the availability and affordability of food with high sugar content and poor access to oral healthcare services in the community. The inadequate exposure to fluoride at optimum levels in the water supply and oral hygiene products such as toothpaste also add to the contributing factors impacting on the dental disease burden.”
Chikte said radical action on oral health would enhance general health and reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart and kidney disease. Cape Town, which was known as the ‘tooth loss capital of the world’ needed more urgent attention to address tooth decay where in some parts of the poorer areas almost half the population had no teeth at all and up to 70% of children aged 12-15 had untreated tooth decay.
While photographic records could be an important complementary measure for dental forensic records if properly done, Chikte said “selfies as the study show, does not hold a great deal of promise”.