If crime rates are so low, why am I so worried?

Have we all caught a strong case of the “fear virus”?

I’m driving home, just 150 yards from my house, when I see a white Chevy Tahoe in my driveway. According to social media and local news blogs, it’s the car a crew of burglars has been using for about a week to break into homes all around us—Oakhurst, Kirkwood, East Lake. The fifteen seconds it takes to get to my driveway are time enough for the following to occur:

• To feel my heart rate skyrocket.
• To say, “Oh, s–t.”
• To answer, “Nothing,” when my three-year-old daughter asks me what I just said.
• To see that the Tahoe is actually in my neighbor’s driveway.
• To see the Tahoe has a Florida tag, not the Georgia tag seen on the suspect vehicle.
• To remember my neighbors have out-of-town guests staying with them.
• To feel like a schmuck.

This is my brain on social media.

Neighbors had posted a BOLO (that’s “be on the lookout”) to Facebook, Twitter, local blogs, and my neighborhood Yahoo Group about a Burglarmobile. I had “liked” and retweeted the posts. My mind drifted into a state somewhere between vigilance and paranoia, hence my reaction when I saw one of the bestselling cars in America (in the most popular color!) appear in my neighbor’s driveway. When the Tahoe in question was eventually found and an alleged ringleader arrested, crime-related social media posts ceased. My resting heart rate returned to normal . . . until, of course, the next BOLO.

There is one factor notably absent in my hypervigilance: the actual prevalence of crime. I moved to Decatur in 2007. Since then, property crime and violent crime have dropped significantly. In 2007, 732 property crimes and 202 violent crimes were reported inside the city limits. Last year there were 690 and 128, respectively. In other words, the overall number of crimes has dropped more than 12 percent. When you consider Decatur’s population has grown by roughly 1 percent per year since 2007, the per capita crime rate is dropping even faster. And while there are ups and downs by year and by neighborhood, violent and property crimes have been trending down for years.

Collectively, metro Atlantans are safer today than we’ve ever been, but the ambient level of fear of crime, as expressed in the number of conversations we have about crime (and my blood pressure), remains stubbornly and perhaps irrationally high.

Are Mark Zuckerberg, et al., to blame for this apparent gap between the low rate of actual crime and high rate of anxiety about crime? Actually, yes. Social media is an amazingly powerful megaphone and echo chamber of neighborhood-level worries. Fifteen years ago you had to talk to your neighbors to hear about their fears. Today fear notifications are pushed to our smartphones. Instead of giving us a clearer picture of crime, this up-to-the-second stream of information is distorting our view. A Pew survey released in December shows 56 percent of Americans think gun crime is worse than it was twenty years ago. In fact, the gun homicide rate in the U.S. declined 49 percent from 1993 to 2010. The fear virus was already being transmitted through news at 11, so it makes sense that it’s being transmitted even more effectively through digital media platforms that exist to make thoughts and sentiments “go viral.”

Even if you had the yogic self-control required to remain unmoved by the impassioned worries of your neighbors, it wouldn’t be a good idea. There’s nothing wrong with being nudged to remember to lock your doors, remove your easily resold valuables from plain view, or call 911 when you see a car that matches the description of the one that’s been looting your neighbors’ houses. But if there’s a way to follow the steady stream of local social media chatter without going a little bonkers, it’s probably by taking a minute to consider the big picture. Crime rates may not be this low forever, so let’s try to enjoy it.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.