'Choose wisely' - Avoiding profanity in books youth read

BYU study finds an increase in profanity among teen novels

In the "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet, Latter-day Saint young people are encouraged to "choose wisely when using media." With so much technology surrounding today's youth, books are often the least of parents' worries.

However, a recent study conducted by Brigham Young University researchers found that profanity is becoming increasingly common in novels directed toward adolescents.

Published in the Mass Communication and Society Journal, the study looked at content from the New York Times' 2008 list of adolescent best sellers. Out of 40 books, 35 used profane words at least once and an average of about seven profanities per hour of reading was found. As the first study to analyze profanity in teen novels, profanities were defined as "obscene, taboo, vulgar or offensive language as deemed by the American general public."

Profanities were divided into five different categories. Mild profanities made up 51% of all expletives found, the "seven dirty words" or words forbidden on broadcast television as determined by the Federal Communications Commission made up 20%, sexual and excretory words were combined to make 9% and the strong other category held 8%.

"We need to be careful with books just as we are with television media," said Sarah Coyne, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU. "A lot of parents feel that if their kids are reading anything, it's good."

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, reported an article in the Deseret News on May 17.

Indeed, there are many books that are of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy, as stated in the 13th Article of Faith and these are the types of books teens are encouraged to seek in Doctrine and Covenants. "… Yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).

Though the list contained books ranging from frequent profanities to none, Sister Coyne said she was surprised to find that "most of the books were fairly tame."

Books like WALL-E, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Invention of Hugo Cabaret were completely clean from even the slightest form of obscenity while a majority of the books, such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Diary of a Wimpy Kid held their spot somewhere in the middle with a few, minor profanities.

However, a handful of books used profane language incessantly. Some had counts over 50 and one book had almost 500 instances of strong profanity.

The study found that as children get older, their books become increasingly infiltrated with bad language. Based on the 40 books tested, a majority of the "clean books" were aimed at children ages 9-11 while 46% of profanity was aimed at teenagers ages 14 and up. At these rates, adolescents reading books within the 14-plus age range are likely to encounter some sort of profanity every fourth page.

Furthermore, the characters using such obscene words were portrayed as popular, wealthy and of a high socioeconomic status, making swearing look "cool."

"From a teenage standpoint being beautiful and popular [are desirable traits]," Sister Coyne said. "The fact that these are the people that are swearing makes it more acceptable."

While it may be impossible to prevent teens from encountering profanity, there are several ways to help them fight the evil they face.

In his October 2011 general conference address, "Stand in Holy Places," President Thomas S. Monson said: "We must be vigilant in a world which has moved so far from that which is spiritual. It is essential that we reject anything that does not conform to our standards, refusing in the process to surrender that which we desire most: eternal life in the kingdom of God. The storms will still beat at our doors from time to time, for they are an inescapable part of our existence in mortality. We, however, will be far better equipped to deal with them, to learn from them, and to overcome them if we have the gospel at our core and the love of the Savior in our hearts. … As a means of being in the world but not being of the world, it is necessary that we communicate with our Heavenly Father through prayer. He wants us to do so; He'll answer our prayers. The Savior admonished us, as recorded in 3 Nephi 18, to 'watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation; for Satan desireth to have you.' "

In addition to President Monson's advice, Sister Coyne suggests the site where parents and teens can look not only at books, but also at other forms of media, and get detailed content information about the good and bad things included in the subject matter.

"I'd also highly recommend talking with your kids about what they read," Sister Coyne said. "It's important to have the conversation; that's where it all begins."

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