TV series such as The Bill and fly-on-the-wall documentaries may have helped to shape a generation's perceptions alongside media reports on police activities, researchers believe.
Young People's Reading at the End of the Century, a report published by the children's literature research centre at Roehampton Institute, outlines not only four to 16-year-olds' approaches to reading, but their views on a wide range of social issues that they may have read about, including drug and alcohol abuse and law and order.
During the Roehampton study, believed to be the most extensive of its kind, 8,000 primary and secondary pupils were asked how far they agreed with statements including "we need more police to run the country smoothly", "there are times when it is necessary to break the law", "some laws discriminate against young people" and "the police should care more about the rights of the individual".
The report said: "It is clear that the majority of young people between the ages of 11 and 16 feel that the police do not care sufficiently for the rights of the individual." It added that "young people are critical of the way the police exercise their powers".
There was fairly unanimous agreement that the police are necessary, a conviction which increased with age.
"You think of there being tensions between youth and authority but respondents seemed to accept that there was a need and a place for the police," said the research centre director Kim Reynolds.
"At around 16, it was interesting that particularly boys were saying that we needed more police to run the country and were more tolerant of any abuse of police privilege.
"As it is teenage boys who are most likely to be victims of violent crime, it is possible that they felt more vulnerable. There is a sense that they feel police could be instrumental in making situations safer.
"We had assumed there would be more of a range of different attitudes in different parts of the country, not just North-South but on rural-metropolitan lines. A lot of attitudes to the police are formed by the media, including TV series like The Bill and fly-on-the-wall documentaries, and these cut across geographical boundaries."
The Roehampton reports on reading, to be published every five years, will be of interest to social scientists as well as teachers and publishers. The first report includes essays on how children choose books, reluctant readers, horror fiction, information books and electronic publishing.