SACRAMENTO, Calif. Adolescents and preteens are swearing more publicly than ever especially at school, experts say.
It's conversational swearing in the hallways and in the classroom that is on the rise, says Timothy Jay, one of the leading scholars on cursing in the United States.
Teens are more likely to drop casual expletives, or "fillers," than the generation before them and have more trouble adjusting their conversation to fit their audience. That means adults especially strangers who cannot sanction the teens hear more of the same language that the teens' friends hear, says Jay, author of "Why We Curse" and "Cursing in America."
He estimates that the average adolescent uses roughly 80 to 90 swear words a day.
"Elementary school teachers report that children are using more offensive language at school than they have in the past," says Jay, who is compiling data for a study he will complete in the fall examining preteens and swearing. "They have been breaking the rules at school more frequently in the last 10 years."
Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., has been studying swearing trends since the 1970s. He points out that language values in the United States constantly change.
"Our language values are shifting, and it's just different, not better or worse," he says.
At R.W. Emerson Junior High in Davis, seventh-grader Kaley McGrew, 13, hears peers using cuss words as fillers when they can't think of another way to express themselves.
"Some people swear and they don't even think about what they are doing; they just say it," she says. "It's just become casual to them, but to some people who don't swear, it can be shocking."
Emerson counselor Michael Leahy says that for the most part the students at the school know when to turn off the loose language they use with their friends when talking to him.
"But in the hallways, the kids are in their own little worlds, and all sorts of language is flying every which way," he says. "I think that the lines between public and private language have become blurred for our kids."
Like Leahy, the Emily Post Institute's Cindy Post Senning, co-author of "Teen Manners: From Malls to Meals to Messaging and Beyond," recommends talking to adolescents about the public image they want to convey through language.
"Some people use swear words with friends and nobody is offended," says the etiquette expert. "The problem is that it becomes a habit, and it can offend unintended listeners."
Post Senning suggests working on helping teens control their profanity rather than disciplining them for using it. And evidence supports her idea: In a 2006 study conducted by Jay, 94 percent of people who reported being punished for cussing continued to swear.
Cussing is a natural behavior learned from family members, according to Jay.
"It starts as soon as they learn how to talk," Jay says. "At a young age, they're attentive to emotions. When you're swearing to be funny or when you're angry that just draws them right to it."
Jay notes that the Internet, television and other media may be making adolescents more comfortable with swearing, but it is their parents' own language habits that are the biggest influence.
The solution, says Jay, is for parents to teach the etiquette of swearing.
"Kids should know about the power of language. Parents should remind them about how important words can be and when you should use them," agrees Leahy.
P.M. Forni, author of "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct," sees the comfort teens have with cussing as a result of parents and teachers opting not to address the issue.
"Many parents have decided not to fight this battle, and one of the reasons is because they often swear themselves and hear it at the workplace," Forni says. "Parents should ban swearing in the household in the same way that they've banned smoking in the household."
The most recent Gallup Youth Survey addressing the issue of swearing was published in 2001 and found that 46 percent of surveyed teens ages 13 to 17 used profanity at least several times a week or daily, while 28 percent said they heard their parents cursing a few times a week or on a daily basis.
"One of the consequences of excessive swearing is the inability to articulate," Forni says. "The profanities are the fillers. They take the place of a more sophisticated way of speaking."
Sixteen-year-old Niels Pedersen says he started swearing when he was in the sixth grade.
"It was the whole angst-y junior high thing," he says, recalling that he didn't stop "awkwardly swearing" until he got into high school.
The last time Niels was shocked by a profanity was when he was in fifth grade. Now he estimates that roughly 80 percent of his friends swear occasionally in conversation, though he adds that he never uses words that are purely derogatory and obviously hurtful to others.
"I'm more surprised by the slang and free use of cuss words not necessarily used by Niels but by his friends," says Maria Pedersen, Niels' mom. "It takes a lot for Niels to get really upset, and he'll use the language to make his point."
And though the high school junior is still young, he already sees a difference between himself and those a few years younger.
"My friends' little brothers are already naturally swearing in the seventh grade, and it's weird," he said. "I wonder if I was that comfortable."