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Courtesy of Al Ibrahim/Creative Commons

Watching too much "Law & Order: SVU" could actually give you nightmares. 

A new study suggests that watching television has made people more afraid of crime. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute, and Patrick Jamieson, director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute, found a correlation between annual changes in the number of violent sequences broadcasted on prime-time TV dramas and responses to a Gallup poll that asked Americans whether they were afraid to walk alone in their neighborhoods at night. The researchers looked at poll responses from when it was introduced in 1972 until 2010.

“Previous research in the field goes back to what was done at the Annenberg School under the then-dean George Gerbner, who was the first to think that the violence on television might be having effects on people,” Romer said. “One of the things he thought was that it made them more afraid, want more police protection, be harsher in terms of punishing criminals … that kind of thing.”

The study shows that as the number of violent sequences per TV hour increased from 1.4 in 1996 to 3.7 in 2010, each additional violent sequence per hour predicted an increase of 1 percentage point in the number of people who said they felt afraid of walking alone in their neighborhoods at night.

Though Romer describes Gerbner’s research as “very influential,” he also says that the studies were scientifically problematic since his correlations could have been negated by setting controls on certain demographics. 

“What we did that was different is that instead of looking at just one cross section in one point in time … we took data from the early 1970s to 2010 and compared it to surveys by Gallup,” Romer said, “and this isn’t a change in demographics because from year to year the same people are watching these shows.” While Romer acknowledged that “it could be only certain proportions of the population showing this effect,” he also said that, “[the effect is] certainly correlated to television.”

Romer also expressed concerns that an increase in anxiety over public safety could have darkly ironic consequences.

“When people are afraid of going out at night, they could want to get a gun to protect themselves, and we know where that can go,” he said. “Seeing these people on these TV shows, which are relatively realistic, frightens people, which has political consequences which politicians can then play upon. They might say we need harsher penalties, and we already have the highest incarceration rate in the world among developed countries.”

“These harsh approaches to crime don’t necessarily make us any safer and just create a larger prison population,” he added.

Romer suggested a disclaimer proceeding popular programs which prominently feature violence and crime.

“It might help if we could educate people about this,” he said. “Make people aware that maybe they are being influenced by these shows and ought to think about them as entertainment, not as realistic truths.”

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