The popular characters in adolescent novels are more likely to swear than their less cool fictional peers, according to a study that examines the use of profanity in books aimed at younger readers.
Researchers at Brigham Young University chronicled the use of profanity in 40 novels aimed at adolescent readers from the New York Times' Best Sellers List for Children's Books. Results were published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.
I've been researching the media for over a decade now, lead author Sarah Coyne, a professor in BYU's department of family life, wrote in an email. My favorite thing to do is read, and I thought it was about time to research books as form of media. They are really ignored in the research.
The study counted words that would be considered profanity in U.S. media. In addition, words that were used in a socially appropriate context (e.g., a pastor giving a sermon on 'hell') were not coded as profanity, the authors wrote.
Coyne was surprised by the level of profanity in some of the books.
Most were really quite tame, but there were a few that had really high levels, she wrote in an email. There is no indication of profanity, or any other type of content anywhere on the book, so you never really know what you are going to get.
The study's authors found that characters of a higher social ranking -- in other words, the popular kids -- were more likely to swear.
Thus, when swearing does occur, it appears to be done by characters that possess characteristics that adolescents might wish to obtain (which according to social learning theory may increase the desire of readers to adopt profanity in their interactions with others), researchers wrote.
That said, the study's authors are not in favor of rating books aimed at younger audiences.
We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warnings regarding profanity, researchers wrote. We understand that providing content warnings on books represents a very hot debate, and that inclusion of such warnings is extremely controversial.
Researchers did, however, suggest that future research recognize literature as a form of media.