You get a book and take it home and you have no idea what's in it, beyond the plot summary. —Sarah Coyne, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU
PROVO — In popular youth-targeted literature, the characters who swear are the cool, rich kids. Good looks, lots of money and foul mouths seem to go together, according to an analysis by BYU researchers that's being published this week in the journal Mass Communication and Society.
Though lots of researchers have examined the content of TV shows, movies and video games for adolescents, this is the first to look at popular adolescent literature in terms of profanity, said lead author Sarah Coyne, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
Coyne studies video games, movies and TV shows to see what they contain and how it impacts populations. But though her own favorite form of entertainment is reading, she's never looked at books the same way. There are standards and warnings for the other mediums, regarding things like profanity or sexual content. "You get a book and take it home and you have no idea what's in it, beyond the plot summary," she said. "Books are unique because you don't know."
More than 80 percent of adolescents choose to read each day. Some studies say they spend as much time reading for pleasure as they spend playing video games.
Coyne said the study doesn't try to answer how profanity affects kids, focusing instead on prevalence and how those who swear are portrayed — two things increasingly being studied in regards to film, TV, video games and music.
"We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warnings regarding profanity. We understand that providing content warnings on books represents a very hot debate and that inclusion of such warnings is extremely controversial," the researchers wrote in the study, noting that content ratings can even serve as "forbidden fruit" that attracts adolescents. "We simply do not know enough about the content of adolescent literature to make that leap." Instead, they recommend future research "should no longer continue to ignore literature as a form of media." It should be included, the effects of its content studied.
Her team found a big gap when they analyzed 40 of the most popular teenage novels, taken from the New York Times Best Sellers List for Children's Books. Some had no profanity, while one contained so much coarse language that they had to decrease its count to keep it from skewing the overall results. "Tweak" by Nic Sheff has close to 500 incidents of profanity; they coded it as identical to the book with the next-highest number, well below that. On average, the 40 books had 34.46 instances of swearing. They also categorized the words themselves, using the coding scheme done to measure profanity on broadcast TV, from "mild use" to the FCC's "seven dirty words," character gender, age of person swearing and the one to whom it was directed, among other things. Characters were classified in such groups as normal, popular, neglected, wealthy, average or attractive. Coders had 12 hours of training on definitions and identification.
They found mild profanity accounted for just over half of the instances, while the "seven dirty words" accounted for about 20 percent of all profanity use. Sexual words were 12 percent, "excretory" words 9 percent and "strong other" 8 percent.
Profanity was rare in novels aimed at the 9-11 age group. For those reading a 12-13 book, profanity appeared about every seventh page on average, compared to every fourth page for 14 and older, who were the targets of more of the "seven dirty words."
About 35 percent of characters used profanity at least once. "Characters who did swear were more likely to be either popular or controversial... while characters who did not use profanity were more likely to be either average or rejected," they wrote. Foul-mouthed characters were more likely to be "highly attractive and come from a higher socio-economic status, while characters who did not use profanity were more likely to be of average attractiveness." The profanity was most often not humorous.
Gender didn't make much difference, at least among younger characters, where swearing seems to be portrayed as normal. Adult female characters were less likely to be profane than adult male characters. Author gender didn't make a difference.
The effects of profanity is a possible subject for future research, Coyne said.
Researchers included Mark Callister, Laura Stockdale, David A. Nelson and Brian M. Wells. Coyne, Stockdale and Nelson were authors on a study published last fall in the journal Pediatrics that noted teens who encounter profanity in media are more likely to use it themselves. That research found profanity use is associated with increased aggression.