According to research presented at the Sociolinguistics Symposium this month, children are learning to use profanity — swearing — at an earlier age. And the researchers found children are also swearing more often than children did just a few decades ago.
Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, presented this data at the conference held earlier this month in the U.K.
Jay suggests the rise in profanity among children is not surprising, given the general rise of the use of swearing among adults during the same time period.
“By the time kids go to school now, they’re saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television,” says Jay. “We find their swearing really takes off between (ages) three and four.”
Kids aren’t learning swearing at an earlier age from the television they watch. The rise in cursing mirrors the rise in cursing among adults in the past thirty years that Professor Jay has been studying the psychology of swearing.
It may not help that parents can sometimes be hypocritical when it comes to swearing. Nearly two-thirds of the adults surveyed that had rules about their children swearing at home found they broke their own rules on a regular basis. This sends children a mixed, confusing message about swearing and when it’s appropriate.
Swearing is not a trivial matter about an occasional profanity slipping past a child’s lips. Previous research into swearing has shown it has a significant impact with problems at home, in school, and at the workplace.
Similar research has shown that men swear more frequently and use more offensive words than women do in public. Both men and women will swear more frequently, too, in the presence of a group consisting only of their own gender, than a mixed-gender group.
Previous research conducted by Jay suggests we we swear not only in reaction to something painful or unpleasant, but also as a way of reducing our feeling of pain.
The frequency of swearing has traditionally peaked around a person’s teenage years, and declines thereafter. However, the new data presented suggests that swearing is occurring at a younger age, suggesting that the peak may also move to younger children over time.
Children do not appear to be yet using worse swear words than in the past — just common swear words more often, according to the new research. Although there are over 70 different common taboo swear words in the English language (some of which also vary from English-speaking country to country), 10 frequently used words account for over 80 percent of common swearing — fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, Jesus Christ, ass, oh my god, bitch and sucks.
Swearing is a commonplace phenomenon in most adults’ everyday speech, with previous research conducted by Jay suggesting that swearing accounts for anywhere between 0.3 to 0.7 percent of our daily speech. Swearing is also becoming more commonplace amongst celebrities, with recent incidents of swearing ranging from the President of the United States, to Serena Williams, the tennis player, and Kayne West, a singer.
“As soon as kids can speak, they’re using swear words,” says Jay. “That doesn’t mean they know what adults know, but they do repeat the words they hear.”
To learn more about the research of swearing, see The Science of Swearing.
Source: Sociolinguistics Symposium 18