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Intellect

BYU Study: Dirty words in teen flicks getting flushed

  • Teen movies from this decade have half as many profanities as 1980s teen flicks
  • 1980s movies averaged 35 swears, the 1990s averaged 25 and the 2000s averaged 16
  • Male characters in teen movies utter the majority of dirty words (72 percent)

This may come as a darned surprise, but teenagers catching a teen movie this summer can expect to hear half as many swear words as their parents did 25 years ago at the theater.
That was the unexpected finding three BYU communications professors discovered after studying profanity in G, PG and PG-13 rated teen-targeted movies from the past three decades.

Authors Mark Callister, Dale Cressman and Tom Robinson detail exactly how profanity in top grossing teen movies has cleaned up in the current issue of the Journal of Children and Media.

“We were quite surprised at the findings,” Callister said. “When you consider that profanity is increasing on television, especially during the 9-10 p.m. hour, and in music lyrics, you often expect to find similar trends in other media.”

The 1980s movies averaged 35 instances of profanity per film, while that figure dropped to 25 profanities per flick in the 1990s and dropped again to 16 instances a show in the 2000s.

The researchers looked only at G, PG and PG-13 rated movies that featured teen characters or had plots that revolved around teenagers. Researchers did a content analysis on the top 30 grossing teen movies from each decade. Some of the top movies included 1980s hits Back to the Future, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Karate Kid, 1990s flicks Casper, She’s All That and Clueless and 2000s movies Spider Man, Harry Potter and Remember the Titans.

They found that the trend over the last three decades shows a decrease in usage across nearly all profanity types, including sexual profanity, strong profanity and mild profanity. Researchers found the trend both within ratings groups and across ratings types.

As an example, 1985’s Weird Science had more than 80 profanities, while 2004’s Cinderella Story had only two mild instances of profanity. The 1980s movies had 1,068 profanities, the 1990s had 758 and the 2000s had only 485.

Researchers also found that males uttered the strong majority of dirty words in the movies (72 percent compared to females’ 28 percent), with teen males being the most dirty-mouthed.

The authors don’t know the reason for the decrease – “Any explanation would be merely conjecture,” Callister said – however, they suggest the possibility that media watchdogs, parents and other groups may be successfully pressuring filmmakers to tone it down for this demographic.

“Their efforts may have had an influence on movie producers, who seem to have responded with fewer instances of swearing in movies produced for younger audiences,” Callister said. “Movies intended for younger audiences may be exceptionally sensitive to such pressure.”

The BYU team is now researching violence and sexual content in teen-centered movies to see how they relate to profanity.

Chris Near, a graduate student at the time, also coauthored the paper.

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