How 'CSI' Changed Parenting

Filed under: In The News, Media, Opinions

Ever wonder why your parents let you play outside and maybe even walk to piano lessons, but now those things seem incredibly scary? The answer could be "CSI."

Well, not just "CSI," but the fact is: when we watch scary shows like it, and "Law & Order," and "The Mentalist" and "Bones" and -- take your pick -- we know they're fiction, but our brains get cluttered with their pictures and plots nonetheless. That's because the shows feel ultra-real, down to the last maggot.

So a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, psychiatrist Timothy Lineberry, decided to see how real they really are. He did a simple study: He compared the violent crimes on "CSI" and "CSI: Miami" to the actual violent crimes committed at the same time in the real world. And guess what?

He found gaps big enough to drive a morgue dolly through.

First of all, in real life, alcohol and drugs are often a factor in crime. People get high, they get crazy, they hurt each other. True fact -- boring plot point. So usually, that's not what's on "CSI." (It's usually not on the nightly news, either.)

The second big discrepancy? Race. On TV, Lineberry found, the victim is likely to be white. Even though in real life, minorities are overrepresented as crime victims.

But the gap that probably has made us most terrified about letting our kids leave the house is this: On TV, the perp is usually a stranger. In real life, most victims know their murderers, and, when it comes to child abuse, the vast majority of kids know their abusers.

On TV, though, it's a girl getting dragged from the playground one day, a boy getting tracked down by a nut on Facebook the next, and pretty soon it starts seeming like the world is full of mean people. There's even a name for that feeling: Mean World Syndrome.

Mean World Syndrome is the social science term for the way scary, violent media convinces viewers that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. And, according to George Gerber, the researcher who coined the phrase (but is, alas, dead -- of nonviolent causes): The more TV we watch, the more scary and unforgiving we believe the world to be.

About 43,000,000 people watch "CSI" annually. So maybe it's not surprising that in a recent Gallup Poll, 74 percent of Americans said that they think crime is increasing. That's even though, in 2009, crime in America dropped to a levels not seen since the 1960s, according to FBI data. Hard to believe but we are enjoying a 30-year drop in crime!

Believing in the Mean World instead of the real world is what's prompting us to keep our kids locked inside. We want them to be safe.

The great news that we'll never see on "CSI" (or CNN, or the local news), is that our kids are pretty safe. They are at least as safe as we were, back when our parents let us play outside and walk to piano lessons.

Let's let 'em out.

Related: Can a Mom Leave Her Kid Alone at the Library for Three Minutes?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.