National Edition

Here's what you can do to protect your kids from media profanity

Published: Monday, Aug. 25 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street. The film set a record for number of swear words at 798.

Mary Cybulski, Associated Press

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Most of psychologist Timothy Jay's research into profanity was exemplified by one moment in the car with his grandson.

"We hit a speed bump and he said (an expletive)," Jay said. "But, he said it with the exact intonation that my daughter said it."

Jay is considered an expert about swearing, with the bulk of his research at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts somehow connected to profanity. One thing he's sure of after 40 years of analysis is that language learning — including profanity — happens at home, not from watching television or movies.

"For something on TV to have an impact with you, it has to be something you’re already sensitive to. Otherwise it's like listening to a foreign language," Jay said. "Newborns are very attentive to the emotional states of their caregivers. If you use emotional language around them (like profanity), they’ll pick up on it."

Profanity's impact on people has been debated since cussing became taboo. And even today, science isn't much closer to indisputable proof. But not everyone is convinced profanity is harmless.

One of those people is Neal Harmon, CEO of VidAngel, a newly launched website offering filtering services for popular television shows and movies. A YouTube ad for VidAngel sums up the company's stance like this: A family sitting down to watch a movie is shot with paintballs every time a swear word is uttered on-screen. "Every word has impact," the video quips. "Protect yourself and your family."

"There’s this chicken-and-egg thing that’s happening," Harmon said. "It's not that easy to ask if society leads Hollywood or if Hollywood leads society. There's an interplay between what's happening in society and what's happening in the movies."

Recently, VidAngel released an in-house study tracking profanity in movies from the first swear word on film (1939's "Gone With the Wind") to 2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street," which holds the record with 798 swearwords — an increase of 500 percent over 74 years. Whether the uptick of media profanity has an impact on kids has yet to be proven, but a study from Jay published in 2010 found that kids are swearing earlier and more often than the decade before.

"By the time kids go to school now, they're saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television," Jay told Live Science. "We find their swearing really takes off between three and four."

To Harmon, the increase is a symptom of bigger problems.

"Thoughts become words that can become actions. Societies break down once they turn to violence or theft or sexual crimes. That's a progression of the words," Harmon said. "Where will our culture be in the future if we don’t take measures to be more civil?"

Taboo vs. meaning

While there's little science about the affect of profanity on the brain or behavior, there is some on the how the taboo of profanity may affect a person's actions.

British scholar Jeffrey Bowers published a study in 2011 that measured emotional responses of people saying expletives out loud vs. euphemisms, like "heck" instead of "hell." Volunteers were connected to a machine that measured perspiration and showed higher stress levels when swearing than when speaking the euphemism. As Bowers told The Guardian, the results spoke to the idea that the taboo lies with conditioning around the words, not just the meanings of them.

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