From ESA – Strategies & Activities

Dirk Hofäcker
Edward Tolhurst
Christiane Schnell
Helena Hirvonen

Thesis Spotlights – Risk Perception and Digital Surveillance among American College Students

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018 0

Veronica Moretti, PhD, Italy

Email: veronica.moretti4 [at]
Institution: University of Bologna, Department of Sociology and Business Law, Bologna, Italy
Time: Enrolled in September 2014, date of defence 17th April 2018
Supervisor: Prof. Antonio Maturo
Funding: The study was supported by the Department of Sociology and Business Law

Examining risk within a sociological perspective implies taking into consideration the remarkable transformations which have taken place in recent years. Digital technologies have expanded the opportunity for individuals to access and share information, which may make the future much less safe than before.

The research analyses the level of risk perception among students at two American universities. Within each of these universities, a Department of Public Safety (DPS) is designated to send students an email whenever a crime is committed on campus or in the surrounding area. The purpose of this service is to ensure adequate awareness of criminal activity. These notifications are known as “crime alerts”.

My thesis investigates the extent to which information sharing about criminal events through technology devices (emails) may alter risk perception and therefore lead students to modify their behaviour. The hypothesis is based on Luhmann’s (1991) semantic distinction between risk and danger. Both terms are commonly used to represent situations having potential negative consequences, but in the case of risk the damage originates as a result of human decisions, while dangers are beyond human control. Risks are related to trust (in our actions); while dangers are related to hope (in fate or destiny). Do crime alerts have an impact on student behaviour? Does information transform a potentially negative event into a risk that can be avoided by a decision?

The reference sample consists only of undergraduate students, as they spend significantly more time on campus than any other student group. Regarding the research methodology, the data were collected from two specific campuses through questionnaires (985) and semi-structured interviews (20).

The findings show varied responses, especially with regard to the use of technologies and the degree of conditioning which can be attributed to crime alerts. Through cluster analysis, four categories of students emerged: Frat Boy; New-normal; Techno-prudent; and Fearful. Although the students received the same alerts and information, differences emerged related to risk perception and changes in routine activities. Those who classified themselves as belonging to the most vulnerable categories (low income students, first generation college students) were strongly conditioned by the crime alerts and changed their behaviours accordingly. Other students expressed more fatalistic attitudes towards potential crimes and just “hoped” that they would not be involved in any negative event.

It seems that digital technologies may affect different people in different ways. As opposed to the classic theory of the diffusion of innovations, which states that the best-off take advantage of technological innovation more rapidly than lower classes, my study found that the most vulnerable students use the opportunity of digital crime alerts more intensively than students coming from affluent families, becoming the “early adopters” of this innovation.