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Study: Neighborhood Apps Skew Perceptions of Crime, Danger

A study from the University of Houston surveyed hundreds of Americans across 43 states to find that ideations about local crime were distorted after using neighborhood social engagement apps like Nextdoor.

A young woman peeking through window blinds.
Oftentimes, perception and truth are not interchangeable. This is particularly notable when discussing crime and safety, as new technology gives unprecedented access to neighborhood and public safety statistics at the tip of one’s finger.

A recent study completed by an assistant professor and psychologist at the University of Houston found that neighborhood apps, such as Nextdoor and others, are exacerbating the perception that crime rates are heightened in an area simply based on the discussions occurring within the apps.

“Neighborhood apps are a great way to keep up with and build one’s community. However, the constant notifications regarding crime might cultivate an availability bias which impacts perceptions of local crime rates,” Adam Fetterman, assistant professor of psychology, said in Psychology of Popular Media, according to a press release. “In two studies, we confirmed our hypothesis that those who use neighborhood apps would perceive local crime rates to be higher in their communities than those who do not, independent of the actual crime rates.”

In the most recent study, 400 U.S. citizens across 43 different states were surveyed by Fetterman about neighborhood app use and crime perceptions.

“The findings suggest that while actual crime rates are significantly associated with perceptions of crime rates, the use of neighborhood apps or websites led to higher biased perceptions of crime rates when controlling for actual crime rates,” Fetterman added. “The frequent use of such services by a large portion of the population suggests that the findings, if robust, could have important implications for perceptions and behaviors related to people’s neighborhoods.”

The findings are not all that surprising, with several studies throughout the past few years unveiling a direct correlation between the type of media or readings an individual consumes and their actions, beliefs and emotions.

For example, there have been studies dating back to 2010 that highlighted how television media and crime shows can have a massive impact on the world, leading to mental health concerns like "mean world syndrome," where unwarranted feelings of victimization impact feelings of safety and security. These feelings and predisposed narratives can inherently transition to social media and other digital community-based applications.

When private neighborhood social engagement apps first burst onto the scene after 2010, developers undoubtedly aimed to foster neighbor-to-neighbor communication in the digital space through apps like Nextdoor, but there is little chance they could have foreseen or prevented the ever-evolving impact on crime perception years down the line.

“Seeing is believing. Personal experience is easier to process than statistical information, so we often rely too heavily on our experiences and anecdotes,” Fetterman shared. “When the science does not match our personal experience, we will be more likely to deny the science.”