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The Not So Horrible Consequences of Reading Banned Books

• April 10, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: ConstantinosZ/Shutterstock)

A new study of Texas teens found no connection between reading edgy books and mental health issues or delinquent behavior.

From The Catcher in the Rye to The Color Purple, countless books have been banned from school libraries over the years, usually because parents or administrators fear they somehow could be harmful to kids. Well, new research suggests these volumes may indeed have an impact on young, malleable minds.

A positive impact.

Among a sample of South Texas teens, those who read “banned books” were more likely to be engaged in civic activities such as volunteer work, according to Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson.

His study, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, finds that while these controversial volumes might be problematic for a small subset of kids, “the influence of banned books on behavior are not worrisome, and may be positive overall.”

“Reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”

Ferguson surveyed 282 youngsters, ranging in age from 12 to 18, living in a small, predominantly Hispanic Texas town. They were presented with a list of 30 books identified by the American Library Association as “a commonly challenged book over the past decade because of content.” These ranged from the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The youngsters responded to a series of statements designed to measure how close they felt to their families, whether they or their close friends engaged in delinquent behavior, and whether they showed signs of neuroticism or antisocial personality disorders. Their primary caregivers filled out a survey describing the youngster’s behavior, and reported his or her most recent grade point average.

In addition, the kids were asked about whether and how frequently they engaged in three civic-minded activities: volunteer work, charitable giving, and elections/electoral processes.

The results: “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA,” Ferguson reports. However, it was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.”

While noting that this type of study cannot prove causation, Ferguson notes that “reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”

Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way, he writes, the books “may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

And it appears most of the kids could handle the dark themes. “For the vast majority of participants, reading banned books was not related to mental health symptoms,” Ferguson adds, “and moderate consumption of banned books was, overall, not associated with mental health.

“However, a small percentage of the sample was high in both the consumption of banned books and mental health symptoms,” he writes. “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms.”

It isn’t clear from this data whether, for that troubled minority of teens, reading edgy fiction is cathartic and thus helpful, or if it leads to the sort of rumination that makes mental-health issues worse. Either way, noticing that your child is attracted to this literature “may serve as a red flag for parents,” he writes.

That said, the study suggests that for the vast majority of kids, reading banned books does not seem to be harmful, and may even contribute to emotional and moral growth.

“Consuming edgy material … may provide teachable moments to discuss ethical issues between parents and children,” Ferguson writes. “Banning such material may be counterproductive in removing these teachable opportunities.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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