Most parents try hard to protect their children from hearing swear words, and children are often punished or reprimanded when they use profane language. The federal government seeks to protect children from hearing swear words through censoring of language in TV shows (particularly during the “family hours”). So, the question arises: How harmful is swearing to children?

The psychological study of swearing is quite new. A recent article in the Association of Psychological Science’s Observer discusses some of the issues in the study of swearing. These researchers note that swearing increases with strong emotions. Hit your thumb with a hammer, make a big mistake, or get startled or angry, and even the most polite and reverent person will likely swear. The researchers suggest that swear words might have a cathartic effect of making us feel better after an injury or emotional episode.

Sticks and stones...

It is clear that swearing can take the form of verbal abuse and harassment, and it is this sort of swearing that can be potentially harmful – a substitute for physical aggression. A well-aimed swear word has been the instigator of many fights. But the question remains: Does hearing swear words in a movie or TV show or on the playground harm children?

Surprisingly, there has been little research on this question. In all likelihood it isn’t swearing itself that is harmful (the article’s authors state that they have recorded 10,000 instances of swearing and rarely seen direct harm), but the factors associated with swearing. For example, when we hear a young child swear, we assume that the child lacks discipline, and a swearing child might suggest to us that he or she is a bully or a “bad influence” on other children. Swearing might indicate a lack of discipline, or it might just be related to a more open and free-speaking home environment.

How does swearing develop in children?

The researchers suggest that swearing develops in the same manner as other parts of vocabulary. Children seem to know all of the same swear words as their same-aged peers, and as a child ages, his or her swear word vocabulary increases. [The authors state that by the time children start school they know 30-40 swear words]. It is the social environment, the parents’ pattern of discipline, the child’s habits, and emotional circumstances that determine whether or not a child will unleash a curse word.

Does everyone swear?

Certainly everyone knows the same swear words. As suggested, lots of developmental and social factors determine how frequently people swear. Younger adults do indeed swear more, as do men. Another question concerns whether swearing has increased over the years, and although there has been little longitudinal research, preliminary evidence suggests that incidence of swearing is relatively stable.

Context matters.

It is important to note that when it comes to swearing context matters. The same swear word can be used as an insult, an exclamation of surprise, or as an expression of pleasure when in the throes of passion. As a social psychologist who has studied many aspects of communication, I was surprised to find that there was so little research on swearing, and said to myself, “Goddammit, another missed research opportunity!”

In any case, swearing is a “hot button” topic. What are your thoughts?

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