Swearing on television during prime time will most likely get a show fined by the Federal Communication Commission, and new research suggests it might be for good reasons.
By studying Midwestern youths, the study found that the more profanity they are exposed to through television and video games, the more accepting they are of swearing and the more likely they are to use profanity themselves. Those kids who swore more were also more likely to engage in physical aggression.
"Profanity is kind of like a stepping stone," said study researcher Sarah Coyne, of Brigham Young University. "You don't go to a movie, hear a bad word, and then go shoot somebody. But when youth both hear and then try profanity out for themselves it can start a downward slide toward more aggressive behavior."
Measuring the profane
Coyne and colleagues polled 266 middle-school students in the Midwest to find out the amount of exposure they had to profane and violent TV and video games, as well as the students' own attitudes and behaviors about profanity and aggression toward others.
The researchers found links between the amount of swearing in video games and television and how often the students used profanity themselves; participants who used more swear language were more likely than other students to exhibit physical and relational violence. However, because the study is correlational it can only show that swearing on TV is indirectly linked to aggression, not whether one causes the other.
"On the whole, it's a moderate effect," said Coyne. "We even ran the statistical model the opposite way to test if the violent kids used more profanity and then sought it out in the media, but the first path we took was a much better statistical fit even when we tried other explanations."
There are some caveats to the study. First, they only relied on the student's self-reports of media and swearing, and self-reports are notoriously variable. Secondly, they only looked at video games and television; they didn't look at other sources of profanity, including music and profanity use in the home. Many video games also have a social component, where users can talk to each other. This talk is often profanity laden, and uncontrolled, the researchers noted.
"The authors assume that words 'harm' children, and they need to be 'protected' from words. This is an assumption without basis, though widely held by conservatives and many social scientists," Timothy Jay, a researcher who wasn't involved in the study from Massachusetts college of Liberal Arts, told LiveScience in an email. "There is no evidence that words on TV cause people harm."
What the researchers don't note, however, are the positive effects of media and yes, even swearing, Jay said.
"There is a literature that shows the prosocial effects of media on children, the authors ignore these reports," Jay said. "The authors make no case for profanity being beneficial, as in humor elicitation, or social bonding, or as a coping mechanism, or as a relief from pain."
The study was published Sunday (Oct. 17) in the journal Pediatrics.