Profanity on TV Linked to Foul-Mouthed Kids

But study doesn't confirm 4-letter words in media cause kids to cuss

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Oct. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Is TV turning our kids into fountains of four-letter words? Maybe so, says a new study that finds a link between foul-mouthed inner-city children and profanity-ridden shows and video games.

However, the research doesn't confirm that exposure to trash-talking adults directly leads to swearing among kids, nor does it explain why non-aggressive cussing might be a bad thing. And the actual size of the possible effect is unknown, although the study's lead author called it "moderate."

"As a society we've gotten pretty lax concerning profanity. We're desensitized to it," said the author, Sarah M. Coyne, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University. "This study shows that it does matter. It matters where they hear it, and parents should maybe be a little more vigilant about profanity exposure in the media."

Several studies have shown that the use of profanity has grown over time, Coyne said. Its use, she said, matters. "It can be offensive, and a lot of people will use it to hurt people. If a peer uses it toward you, there's a physiological reaction that occurs. If you look at it in those terms, it is problematic."

Coyne said she was inspired to launch the study by research that has suggested kids who watch violent TV and movies are more likely to be aggressive. It's a difficult thing to prove definitively, since it could be that kids who are more aggressive in the first place are naturally drawn to violent programs. The most reliable way to do such research would be to randomly assign some kids to watch violent programming and others to not, but that would raise ethical qualms if it were to be done over a long term.

For the study, investigators surveyed 223 adolescents (87 boys and 135 girls) in an inner-city middle school in the Midwest. Their average age was about 12.5 years. Among other things, the researchers asked them about their favorite TV shows and video games, and how often they use curse words.

Those who watched TV shows and played video games with more profanity were more likely to use such language, the researchers found. But the study's design didn't allow researchers to definitively say whether the exposure directly caused the kids to cuss more. Nor could they specify how much of a difference the exposure may have made in terms of the greater odds that a kid would use profanity.

It's also not clear whether boys or girls were more likely to use foul language, and the study didn't examine when the kids used profanity.

Commenting on the findings, Douglas A. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, said the study fills a hole in existing research about children.

It also shows the power of television, he said. "You learn from whatever you look at. Whatever you see you'll learn something about it, even if you don't know it."

That works for educational programming, he said, and for other types of viewing, too, such as shows with profanity. "Part of what you learn is what's appropriate," Gentile added.

The study is published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

More information

Learn about child development from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Sarah M. Coyne, Ph.D., assistant professor, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Douglas A. Gentile, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; November 2011, Pediatrics

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