Researchers claim link between profanity and aggression

We all know about the studies that claim violent TV shows and video games can spark an increase in aggression among children. Now a new study is hypothesizing the same may also hold true for media with foul language.

The study – published in the medical journal Pediatrics – suggests there may be a connection between profane media and aggression. Pediatrics is the most respected journal in its field and it’s among the top 2 percent of cited scientific and medical journals globally.


While groups of concerned parents are known for overreacting to issues, it would appear this concern may have scientific merit.


The article appears to be one of the first to discuss the effects of profanity in media. This is somewhat surprising, as  language is obviously crucial to movie and TV ratings.


For their exploration of this often ignored issue, researchers at Brigham Young University collected information from 223 middle school students in the Midwest. The data isn’t longitudinal (meaning they did not observe the same subjects over time), but BYU family life professor Sarah Coyne says the statistical techniques reveal more clues than simple correlation tests would.


What are these clues? To be specific, the statistical modeling shows a chain reaction. This means  exposure to profanity is linked with acceptance and use of profanity, which basically influences physical and relational aggression.


“On the whole, it’s a moderate effect,” said Coyne, the lead author of the Pediatrics study. “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.”


Brad Bushman, a media scholar at (The) Ohio State University who was not involved with the study, concurred after reviewing the study.


“This research shows that profanity is not harmless,” said Bushman, a mass communications professor. “Children exposed to profanity in the media think that such language is ‘normal,’ which may reduce their inhibitions about using profanity themselves. And children who use profanity are more likely to aggress against others. These are very important findings for parents, teachers, and pediatricians.”


The link between swearing and adolescent aggression stayed significant even when accounting for the influence of portrayals of aggression in the programs and games that are popular with the middle school children who took part in the study.


“Profanity is kind of like a stepping stone,” Coyne said. “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.”


Interestingly, Coyne says that the rating systems we all know and love may have been “ahead of their time” by steering youth away from profanity without scientific evidence to explain why. But she also identifies a new gap in the video game ratings system when it relates to educating parents about games that allow online interaction between players.


Apparently she thinks that even in a virtual world, misbehaved and foul mouthed kids can be a bad influence on other kids. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen.


Most online gaming communities don’t follow an “Honor Code”  to use clean language. And if online games do have such codes, most players simply choose not to follow them because it’s more fun that way.