Teen books: twice as obscene as video games?

A study conducted by a Brigham Young professor found that obscenity is rife in some teen novels and that characters who swear tend to be portrayed as more attractive and popular.

“Perfect” by Sara Shepard and “Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamine” by Nic Sheff were two of the books included in a Brigham Young University study on obscenity in young adult novels.

Sure, you know teen and tween movies and video games are rife with potty-mouthed characters, violence, and explicit sex scenes. But did you know adolescent bestsellers are, too?

According to a study by Brigham Young University social sciences professor Sarah Coyne, young adult bestsellers are so rife with cursing they actually have twice the rate of cursing of video games. What’s more, the characters in adolescent fiction that swear are typically portrayed as wealthier, more attractive, and more popular than their clean-mouthed counterparts.

In the study, published this month in “Mass Communication and Society,” Coyne analyzed the use of profanity in 40 books from an adolescent bestseller list. She found 35 of the 40 books, or about 88 percent, contained profanity (compared to 34 percent in video games). And on average, Coyne found teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity, which she said, translates to almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.

If your teen or tween’s nightstand is piled high with Harry Potter or Twilight novels, fear not: Coyne found those popular series tame, with little to no swearing. But “Pretty Little Liars,” the dramatic Sara Shepard series featuring four young girls, is above-average with 80 “objectionable” words in a 298-page book, “Perfect.” The worst offender on her list was “Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamine.”

The fact that potty-mouthed characters are portrayed as superior is particularly concerning, Coyne said in a BYU statement.

“From a social learning standpoint, this is really important because adolescents are more likely to imitate media characters portrayed in positive, desirable ways,” Coyne said.

And while video games or movies come with warnings and age controls, Young Adult books do not have indicators of maturity content, she adds.

“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 said. “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”

Not everyone is surprised – or alarmed – by the findings.

“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,” wrote Cassie Murdoch of Jezebel.

What do you think? Is Coyne’s study needlessly alarmist? Or should this be a wake-up call to parents?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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