NEW YORK - Middle-school kids who hear swear words on TV or in video games may act more aggressively toward their peers, physically or otherwise, a small study suggests.
The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, add to the controversial question of whether media violence and aggression -- and now, aggressive words -- actually affect kids' behavior.
In a study of 223 kids at one US middle school, researchers found that those exposed to more profanity-laced TV shows or video games tended to use blue language themselves. And kids who used profanity, in turn, reported more instances of aggression -- anything from throwing punches to spreading gossip.
None of that proves that bad language in the media makes for bad kids, according to lead researcher Sarah M. Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Utah.
"This study shows a correlation," she told Reuters Health, and does not prove cause-and-effect.
What's more, if media profanity plays any role in kids' aggression, it's not clear how much of an impact it would have.
"There are lots and lots of things that contribute to aggressive behavior," Coyne said.
It's more likely, she added, that bad language on TV and in video games could affect kids' own language -- but the ultimate impact on their behavior could be much more complicated.
That said, Coyne pointed out, "profanity itself can be a form of aggression."
She suggested that parents "pay a little more attention" to the language in the programs and games their kids are sitting down to. "We tend to be passive viewers," Coyne noted. "We're so used to hearing profanity all over the place, we might not even notice it (on TV)."
That fact also points to a limitation of the study. Is it media profanity, specifically, that's related to kids' language and behavior? Or do kids exposed to swear words in TV shows and video games also have parents and friends who cuss -- and is that the important influence?
"This study isn't rigorous enough to rule out other explanations (for the correlation)," said Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University who was not involved in the research.
"This isn't enough to show a robust correlation, let alone cause-and-effect," Ferguson told Reuters Health.
He said that a number of studies into media violence and kids' aggression have found that once you control for factors like parents' and friends' influences, as well as a child's mental health, the link between media violence and behavior disappears.
"There's really nothing in (the new findings) that parents need to worry about," said Ferguson, whose own research has found no link between media violence and kids' odds of aggressive behavior.
Coyne acknowledged the limitations of the study -- which also include the fact that the students were surveyed at one time point, which leaves the familiar chicken-and-egg question.
It's possible, Coyne said, that kids who already use bad language are drawn to profanity-laced TV shows and games.
She and her colleagues did try to approach the question from that angle too. But when they did, they saw much weaker statistical correlations -- which suggests that it's more likely the media exposure came first.
The findings are based on questionnaires given to 223 middle-school students who were 12 years old, on average. The students listed the number of hours they spent watching TV or playing video games on an average day. They also named their three favorite shows and games, and rated the amount of profanity in each.
Overall, Coyne's team found, the more media profanity children reported, the more likely they were to say it was OK for them to talk that way. And the more permissive that attitude, the more likely the child was to use swear words.
Finally, kids who used bad language were more likely to say they were physically aggressive against other people, or were prone to non-violent aggression -- like gossiping to hurt other kids' reputations.
It could be helpful, according to Coyne, to do a study that follows kids over time to see how media-profanity exposure corresponds to aggressive behavior later on. Or, she said, lab studies could look at whether hearing four-letter words affects people's own language afterward.
But Ferguson was more skeptical about the wider body of research into the effects of media images and words on kids' behavior. "I think this is more of a moral agenda than a scientific one," he said.