If you’ve read more than a handful of young adult (YA) novels, you’re probably well past the point of being dismayed by the thematic darkness and swear words. A new study by Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne finds that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers or almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.
But the number of curse words is less interesting than who’s got the potty mouth. The characters who swear the most tend to be rich, attractive and popular, Coyne found “From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways,” Coyne tells Science Daily. Scholastic blogger Morgan Baden puts it simply: “all the cool kids are doing it.”
This is not the first time the content of YA fiction has come under the microscope. Recall the Wall Street Journal a year ago published a piece which eviscerated the genre, noting that “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.” The medical journal Pediatrics published another bit of research by Coyne six months ago that found a link between profanity in media and teen aggression, Science Daily notes.
Scholastic’s Baden defends the blue language in YA books “where the characters are so vivid, and so well-written, that I couldn’t imagine them speaking any other way than the way the author chose them to speak.” The readers of YA novels, she points out are “in the process of forming their identities, and sometimes that includes testing out ways of speaking and exploring just how much impact their voices can have.”
“F— it,” says the website Jezebel, which its signature insouciance. “Let’s just be happy that kids are reading at all and not get our panties all twisted up about the fact that the books they’re choosing to consume accurately reflect how their friends actually talk.”
Easy to say, but woe unto the teacher who fields the angry call from a parent that starts, “My daughter says she chose this book from YOUR classroom library…” Realistic fiction? Literary quality? Yeah, good luck with that.
Should there be warning labels on YA novels? Shrink wrap them and put them on the highest shelf? “Unlike almost every other type of media, there are no content warnings or any indication if there is extremely high levels of profanity in adolescent novels,” Coyne says. “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”
Coyne’s study appears in the journal Mass Communication and Society.