Books for teens contain a surprising amount of swear words – at least, so says a study by Brigham Young University social sciences professor Sarah Coyne. Looking at 40 YA bestsellers, Coyne found that the average teen novel contains 38 swear words – or, by her calculations, seven instances of profanity per hour of reading.
This is a study coming from a Mormon university, so the obvious assumption embedded in this research is that profanity in books is harmful to adolescents. Coyne’s analysis showed that characters with “high social status, better looks, and more money” used curse words more frequently – which she believes may cause children to try to emulate these “positive” portrayals.
While the implied link between mild juvenile delinquency and young adult lit is tenuous at best, Coyne does have some reasonable suggestions. Namely, that parents who are concerned about the content in their children’s books do some research on them using free online resources, and that parents talk about books their children are reading with them.
I don’t believe in censoring the literature children have access to once they’re in middle or high school (and I think that younger children are mostly confused or bored by subject matter that’s too mature for them to understand, so careful censorship isn’t strictly necessary). It is good for parents to know what their children are reading and watching on TV. It’s important to be able to discuss problematic subjects and how they’re portrayed in the media. And it’s good for parents to be able to speak to their children about their interests. These are all important considerations regardless of your political leanings or opinion on “obscenity” in literature.
But let’s be honest. Students probably hear curse words more than 7 times per hour in school hallways (except maybe in Utah). People learn swear words from friends or family members as a child or teen – even if they avoid using them in normal conversation, or at all. While everyone’s entitled to their own opinions about foul language, most people know exactly when it is and isn’t considered socially appropriate and are capable of conducting themselves accordingly. (And if not, they realize they’re deliberately alienating people.) This has probably been true since the beginning of time, and society has failed to collapse.
I sincerely doubt that reading some profanity in a book will have any greater negative effect than hearing it aloud on a daily basis. And it seems like a stretch to assume that the “cool” characters in a book will have more of an influence on teens than peer pressure from their friends.
What do Care2 readers think? Is this study exaggerating the harm of foul language in teen literature? Or is there something to this study?
Photo credit: Karoly Czifra via Flickr
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