If a child occasionally says an F-word they heard on TV or repeats the S-word they heard in school, it’s easy to feel like a bad role model.
But parents should think twice before scolding them because scientists now think kids don’t understand the meaning of swear words until they’re teenagers.
It is widely believed that a child’s exposure to swearing as a youth may make them more likely to swear in adult life, but there is little evidence to support this.
Experts are now challenging conventional wisdom and say it may not be until adolescence that young people fully understand the taboo.
‘There is a real possibility that children do not understand the real meaning of the profanity they use,’ Dr Karyn Stapleton, senior lecturer in interpersonal communication at the University of Ulster, told The Telegraph.
“However, I think a key point is that they understand (or very quickly gain an understanding) of the power that swear words hold.
“Adolescence is not usually considered under the swearing effects hypothesis, but we suggest that it could be an especially fruitful site for research.”
“bump of reminiscence”
The impact of profanity may be most profound in adolescence due to the “reminiscence noise” phenomenon, she added.
This occurs during adolescence and creates deep, lifelong connections to music, art, and other memories.
When people look back on their early adult life or teenage years with extreme fondness, their rose-tinted glasses are often the result of the bump of reminiscence.
Experts now suspect that swearing may also fall into the same category, with our teenage years dictating how profanity will entrench itself in our vernacular for the rest of our lives.
“The ‘power’ of swearing for individuals (i.e. the bodily, emotional, cognitive and relational effects such as pain relief, increased alertness and increased heart rate) may be formed, at least in part, during adolescence,” said the dr. Stapleton.
Research has shown that cursing is a form of catharsis and emotional release, as well as increasing pain relief, improving physical strength, and building confidence.
But scientists still don’t know where, when, or how swearing gets this power that sets it apart from all other forms of language.
Teenage Memories and the “Power to Swear”
Previous studies claimed that the power of profanity comes from our childhood, when we are admonished and punished for using forbidden expletives.
Dr Stapleton says that while this is possible, a review she conducted earlier this year and published in Lingua revealed that there was very little evidence to support it.
“We are suggesting that adolescence could be a significant time for forming experiences, associations and memories of profanity,” said Prof. Stapleton.
“We are suggesting, as an area for future research, that memories and associations formed during adolescence might, like our memories for music released now, remain salient in later life.”
Scientists say this isn’t proven yet, but it’s a possibility that should be explored further.
“It could also be that adolescent memories (many of which may be positive) play a formative role in ‘the power to swear’ – in addition to the more commonly assumed role of childhood memories of punishment and admonishment,” said Dr. Stapleton.
Another unanswered question is whether the oath will lose some of its potency in the future as it becomes more socially acceptable to the younger generation.
“As swearing becomes more common (e.g. with social media use), it is perhaps inevitable that it will lose some of its ‘shock’ value in many contexts and therefore, arguably, its offensive potential,” said the dr. Stapleton.
But he adds that the very nature of the oath means that it always has the potential to offend, even if it doesn’t.