New Study on Profanity and YA Stirs Media Concern

A new study about YA books is alarming parents to the idea that their teens might be reading books with–gasp!–profanity. I haven’t seen the full study, so you can take all of this with a grain of salt. But based on articles about this study, I have a few reservations about the findings.

First, apparently “teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers. That translates to almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.” Does profanity mean any cursing at all, including “hell” or “damn,” which you can hear pretty regularly on tv? If so, my guess is that language that wouldn’t fly in a movie or tv show is limited to a handful of instances in the average teen novel.

Second, apparently characters who swore more often usually had “higher social status, better looks and more money.” As a general fan of YA, my guess is that these characters aren’t usually the protagonists. Outside of novels like Gossip Girl, more YA tends to focus on the kids who aren’t super rich and popular and beautiful. And the popular teens tend to be the source of more drama and anxiety for the protagonist, suggesting that characters who swear more often are more likely to be cast in negative roles.

Third, I’m curious to see which books this study looked at and how they were evaluated for their content outside of profanity. In my high school, we had to read Catcher in the Rye, which uses a fair amount of cursing. Although Catcher in the Rye still gets flack for its content, it’s widely considered a classic and is included in most middle/high school literature curricula. Can’t contemporary YA novels be held to that kind of standard, where language is part of a larger story and emotional journey?

The lead researcher of the study suggests that children’s and YA books should come with a ratings system. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, responds:

“Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues. ALA’s interpretation on any rating system for books is that it’s censorship.”

I’m very much with Yoke on this one. Obviously parents should take an active part in their child’s reading life, but that should involve reading books alongside their children and having conversations about the content, not slapping labels on book covers. And frankly, sometimes teenagers need to engage with issues on their own and books are a fantastic way to do that.

Also, YA books are intended for teenagers. Let’s classify that as generally PG-13 content. Isn’t a book’s place in the teen section of a bookstore or library enough of a “warning” about the content without having to develop a ratings system?

If anyone has any more details about the study itself and what criteria was used, I’d love to hear about it. Do you feel that YA has too much profanity and should be rated in some way?

2 thoughts on “New Study on Profanity and YA Stirs Media Concern

  1. I agree that having books in different sections of the bookstore already functions as a kind of rating system.

    Anytime I hear a discussion about this I have the same reaction. If you’re concerned about what your kids are getting into, pay attention to it! Read the books that they’re reading, watch the TV shows and movies they watch, and then sit and discuss it with them. I know I know, that sounds far too much like parenting, it’s so much easier to let the government appoint a group of people to slap a rating on something that says “This is ok for kids from age 10 and up.”

    Profanity is a part of life, and for everyone who complains about it, keep in mind that a lot people start using profanity as early as middle school and definitely in high school. They are only words, and it’s very possible to discuss profane subject matter without using them.

  2. Oh, Lord. When I was in 7th grade, I read “Clan of the Cave Bear,” and I generally read a sequel per year. So I was 12 when I read a graphic description of rape and 13 when I read several graphic descriptions of sex. (I also read “The Mists of Avalon” in 8th grade–per my English teacher’s recommendation–so I also got a fairly juicy incest and a menage a trois scene, too.)

    The thought a *gasp* f-bomb in a teen’s book makes me laugh–especially as I heard that sort of language regularly in the halls of my school. Teenagers curse all the time around each other because it’s rebellious and forbidden.

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