Children Who Hear Swear Words on TV Are More Aggressive

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Jim Doberman

When children are exposed to violence on TV and in video games, studies show they tend to become more aggressive themselves. But a new study reveals that even just exposure to swear words in media may lead children to become more physically aggressive as well.

In a study involving 223 middle-schoolers in Missouri, researchers at Brigham Young University asked the students about their exposure to profanity in the media — in particular on television and in video games — as well as their attitudes about swear words and their tendencies toward aggressive behavior. The scientists measured both physical aggression (by asking students whether they hit, kicked or punched others) and relational aggression (by asking them whether they gossiped about others to damage their reputations).

Using statistical models, the researchers calculated that exposure to profanity had about the same relationship to aggressive behavior as exposure to violence on TV or in video games. In addition, they found that the more children were exposed to profanity, they more likely they were to use swear words themselves, and those who used profanity were more likely to become aggressive toward others.

“From using profanity to aggressive behavior, it was a pretty strong correlation,” says study leader Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young. “And these are not even the worst [profane] words that kids are exposed to, since there are seven dirty words that you’re not allowed to say on TV. So we’re seeing that even exposure to lower forms of profanity are having an effect on behavior.”

Coyne recognized that it was possible that the relationship went the other way, that children who used profanity might also tend to seek out television programs and games that featured profanity, which could account for the association. But her statistical model adjusted for such a possibility, making her confident that the relationship builds from exposure to use of swear words to aggressive behavior. “The primary implication needs to be that we need to be more aware of profanity in the media,” she says, “and not be such passive viewers.”

While bullying behavior was not specifically addressed in the study, children who are more aggressive are known to be more likely to bully. So controlling youngsters’ exposure to profanity may be one way to stem the tide of bullying among teens.

To do that, however, media targeted at adolescents needs to be more transparent about its content. While voluntary TV parental guidelines offer ratings of television shows and video games based on language, sex and violent content, these labels aren’t always accurate, and the new study results hint that the consequences for teens may be serious. “Hopefully it gives producers something to think about, and motivation to accurately give the correct ratings for TV programs,” Coyne says. “Because there are behavioral implications for exposure to profanity.”

The study was published in Pediatrics.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.