May 18, 2012 -- Profanity in teen novels varies greatly from book to book, but characters that do use foul language tend to also be the most popular, attractive and rich, according to new research published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.
Sarah Coyne, professor in the department of family life at Brigham Young University, analyzed the use of profanity in 40 young adult books on the adolescent bestsellers list.
Thirty-five out of the 40 books had at least one swear word. She found that YA novels contained on average 38 instances of bad language, but one book had nearly 500 instances of swearing.
Of note, the characters that were doing the swearing tended to be of higher social status, better looking and have more money than their non-swearing counterparts.
"The funny thing about books is that you really don't know what you're getting into when you pick one up," said Coyne. "I was genuinely surprised by how much profanity some of these books had."
The documented increase in the use of profanities within YA fiction keeps with the increased acceptance of obscenities in general, said Dr. Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
"Recall the multiple political figures who have been heard to use profanity when they assumed they were not on microphone," said Schlozman. "The subsequent [truth] that increased profanity within dialogue or first-persona narratives, or third-person familiar narratives, adds to the YA novel, and a kind of challenging that is characteristic of identity formation for all adolescents and young adults, especially in Western culture."
And that level of profanity that kids are learning and using these days can be shocking, said Dr. Victor Strasburger, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications & Media. But, while media plays a strong role in influencing children's language and profanity, movies and television have a much more powerful role than books.
"Reading has always been a separate kind of media," said Strasburger. "Seeing your favorite movie star, or someone you identify with, spouting foul language is different than reading it on a page because with movies you have the visual processing, along with the auditory and role modeling. With books, you just have the visual."
Experts, including Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician who authored "Baby 411," said that families should preview movies and television shows before kids watch them, and read books along with their children.
"Then like other book clubs, take the opportunity to discuss them," said Brown. "These are where teaching moments happen as parents. It gives kids a chance to ask questions not only about the plot, but the human interactions portrayed by the characters. Teens, in particular, use all forms of media to get a taste of what the real world is like, so it is important to talk about issues that come up in books if they deviate from your own moral compass."
Help kids to understand context, said Schlozman.
"Obscenities have their place, but these strong words lose their punch if used frequently, Schlozman continued. "And, help kids to understand that they have every right to use strong words (we can't and don't want to threaten an adolescent with control over what comes out of their mouth) but they must be also be aware that the very nature of the choice to use these words brings with it consequences."