Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

banned-books-concept

(Photo: ConstantinosZ/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.