Most of psychologist Timothy Jay's research into profanity was exemplified by one moment in the car with his grandson.
“We hit a speed bump and he said (an expletive),” Jay said. “But, he said it with the exact intonation that my daughter said it.”
Jay is considered an expert about swearing, with the bulk of his research at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts somehow connected to profanity. One thing he's sure of after 40 years of analysis is that language learning — including profanity — happens at home, not from watching television or movies.
“For something on TV to have an impact with you, it has to be something you’re already sensitive to. Otherwise it's like listening to a foreign language,” Jay said. “Newborns are very attentive to the emotional states of their caregivers. If you use emotional language around them (like profanity), they’ll pick up on it.”
Profanity's impact on people has been debated since cussing became taboo. And even today, science isn't much closer to indisputable proof. But not everyone is convinced profanity is harmless.
One of those people is Neal Harmon, CEO of VidAngel, a newly launched website offering filtering services for popular television shows and movies. A YouTube ad for VidAngel sums up the company's stance like this: A family sitting down to watch a movie is shot with paintballs every time a swear word is uttered on-screen. “Every word has impact,” the video quips. “Protect yourself and your family.”
“There’s this chicken-and-egg thing that’s happening,” Harmon said. “It's not that easy to ask if society leads Hollywood or if Hollywood leads society. There's an interplay between what's happening in society and what's happening in the movies.”
Recently, VidAngel released an in-house study tracking profanity in movies from the first swear word on film (1939's “Gone With the Wind”) to 2013's “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which holds the record with 798 swearwords — an increase of 500 percent over 74 years. Whether the uptick of media profanity has an impact on kids has yet to be proven, but a study from Jay published in 2010 found that kids are swearing earlier and more often than the decade before.
“By the time kids go to school now, they're saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television,” Jay told Live Science. “We find their swearing really takes off between three and four.”
To Harmon, the increase is a symptom of bigger problems.
“Thoughts become words that can become actions. Societies break down once they turn to violence or theft or sexual crimes. That's a progression of the words,” Harmon said. “Where will our culture be in the future if we don’t take measures to be more civil?”
Taboo vs. meaning
While there's little science about the affect of profanity on the brain or behavior, there is some on the how the taboo of profanity may affect a person's actions.
British scholar Jeffrey Bowers published a study in 2011 that measured emotional responses of people saying expletives out loud vs. euphemisms, like “heck” instead of “hell.” Volunteers were connected to a machine that measured perspiration and showed higher stress levels when swearing than when speaking the euphemism. As Bowers told The Guardian, the results spoke to the idea that the taboo lies with conditioning around the words, not just the meanings of them.
That conditioning around the words, rather than the words themselves, might change behavior and word choice, Bowers said. Bowers cited an exchange between UK journalist John Pilger and a merchant at a gun show. Pilger asked the merchant to tell him how a cluster grenade worked.
The merchant explained that dust in the grenade would “saturate the objective.” When Pilger asked if “objective” meant people, the merchant became visibly uncomfortable. Pilger noted that the salesmen often “have the greatest difficulty saying 'people' and 'kill' and 'maim.'”
“This, Bowers says, is a perfect example of how what you say — or what you find too excruciating to say — affects the way you think and act,” the Guardian article stated, regardless of whether the words are dirty or not.
The dearth of information about profanity's affect on humans is why Sarah Coyne, a professor at Brigham Young University, thinks the relationship between kids, swearing and the media warrants further research.
“I was curious about this in terms of movie ratings systems,” Coyne said. “If there's nothing wrong with profanity, why in the world would you rate a movie differently because there's profanity in it?”
In 2010, Coyne conducted a correlation study that surveyed more than 200 Missouri middle-school kids about how much profanity they were exposed to in media and their tendencies toward aggressive behavior like hitting or gossiping. Coyne and the team of researchers found that children who were exposed to profanity in the media had a positive outlook on both the use of swear words as well as acts of physical and non-physical aggression.
Coyne says the study doesn't identify a cause for childhood swearing, but the strength of the correlation surprised her.
“It could be that a kid who swears seeks out media with a lot of swearing. What you need to do then is do an experiment and expose them to profanity or not,” Coyne said. “But I think it's ethically pretty hard to do that.”
Jay did similar research with two 2006 studies. One asked 47 college students to write personal narratives about childhood swearing. The other surveyed more than 200 college students about family attitudes and punishment for swearing. Most cited factors besides the media as causes of profanity.
“Most of the participants (52 percent) thought that people curse out of habit, learned to curse from parents (12 percent) or siblings (6 percent),” the study stated. “A small percentage of participants regarded television (6 percent) or movies (4 percent) as causal factors.”
“It's really difficult to find any social science evidence that a word harms you,” Jay said. “Language simply isn't a pathway into any kind of pathology. It’s part of human nature.”
Taking control at home
Until there's harder proof that profanity can harm children, Coyne and Jay agree that one thing can make all the difference about how kids experience swearing: Parents.
“Kids are going to learn and use this language,” Jay said. “It’s the taboo imposed on this language that gives it its power. The more you punish kids, the more you’ve shown them how powerful it is.”
Coyne stressed the importance of parents leading by example.
“There's a third-person effect where people say, 'I'm sure media affects kids, but not mine,'” Coyne said. “A lot of parents say not to use profanity, but then they let it slip in through various types of media. It's all about your values system.”
But those family values don't mean anything without a plan for instilling them in a child in an effective way, Jay said.
“If you're going to be a parent, you need to have a plan about how you're going to talk about this with your kids,” Jay said. “Be cool. Teaching your kids your values is your job, not the TV's job. Remember: It's just a word.”