Profanity in Teen Novels: Characters Who Curse Are Often the Most Desirable

An analysis of teen best-sellers reveals enough profanity to make a sailor blush. Do you know what your kids are reading?

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In a recent analysis of best-selling teen novels, researchers from Brigham Young University report that young readers encounter about seven instances of profanity per hour — and those characters with the dirtiest mouths are often the richest, most popular and best-looking. As with so many things, surmise the researchers, parents are probably in the dark about the trash their kids are reading.

Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne and her colleagues analyzed profanity use in 40 teen novels on the New York Times’ best-seller list of children’s books published in 2008. All the books reviewed targeted children age 9 or older.

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The researchers defined profanity as any language considered obscene, offensive, taboo or vulgar by the American public. They categorized profanities into five groups:

  1. The Seven Dirty Words: Words the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers unspeakable for broadcast television.
  2. Sexual Words: Words describing body parts or sexual behavior in a coarse way.
  3. Excretory Words: Words that have direct or literal reference to human waste.
  4. Strong Others: Words defined as strong based on their level of offensiveness or “taboo-ness.”
  5. Mild Others: Words that are mild based on their level of offensiveness or “taboo-ness.”

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The researchers found that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity, which translates to nearly seven curse words per hour of reading. Of the 40 books in the study, 88% contained at least one “bad word.”

Some books were especially laden with dirty words. For instance, the novel Tweak contained 500 instances of profanities. The “F-word” alone appeared 139 times in Tweak, 50 times in Gossip Girl–The Carlyle and 27 times in the novel Tempted. The novels with the foulest language were typically aimed at older adolescents ages 14 and up. Five of the novels did not contain any profanity, with all but one of those falling in the reading category for 9- to 11-year-olds. “I had no clue there would be that type of content in those books,” says Coyne. “If they were made into movies, they would easily be rated R, and parents have no clue.”

About 50% of the literary profanity was considered “mild.” Words falling under the “seven dirty words” category accounted for 20% of profanities, and “sexual,” “excretory,” and “other strong profanity” each accounted for about 10% of overall profanity. “I was shocked by the books with the most profanities,”  says Coyne. “I could not believe the levels of profanities in Tweak.”

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The researchers were also interested in who was cussing. They found that when profanity was used, the characters were most likely to be young, rich, attractive and of high social status.

“A lot of research has shown that viewers tend to imitate the characters with desirable characteristics,” says Coyne. “If adolescents are reading about these characters who are popular and rich — which are desirable characteristics for them — they are likely to imitate their behavior.”

While profanity in TV, movies and video games has been studied at length, Coyne is one of the first to look at its prevalence in books. What’s especially concerning is that unlike other forms of media, there are no content warnings or ratings on teen novels.

“We hold books to a higher standard compared to other forms of media,” says Coyne. “There is not a lot of research on books in this regard, but the amount of profanities was truly eye-opening for me.”

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For comparision, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a single use of the “F-word” in a film gives it a PG-13 rating. More than one use requires an R rating, and children under age 17 must be accompanied by an adult to view the film.

“Books are harder to monitor,” says Coyne. “I recommend parents talk to their kids about teen novels as they would any other media form.”

Coyne also recommends the website Common Sense Media, which provides media and literature content information to parents, as a good starting point for monitoring teen literature.

The study was published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.