The subject of appropriate reading material for teens is one of much debate. Please share thoughts and critical feedback in the comments section.
The UK differs substantially from the US in that there are are not a tremendous amount of challenges to sex to scenes in young adult literature, or objections to sex education for teens. However, I still found that Beyond Titillation: Sexuality and the Young Adult Novel, presented by Jason Kurtz and Dr. Nicholle Schuelke at YALSA Symposium 2010 provided insight into what teens are able to handle when it comes to other types of reading material and challenging subjects such as sex and violence.
Jason Kurtz started by stating that teens bring their paradigm to books they read. This worldview is pre-formed by experience with parents, peers, and similar. As Schuelke says, the assumption is that reading changes people. But reading doesn’t shift that; parents, school, community all have a much greater effect. Teens interpret the books they read based on the way they already understand the types of experiences they’re reading about.
This may appear to be an obvious bit of finding, but it’s important to consider in the context of challenges and censorship of books. When librarians receive complaints about books for teens, the person lodging the complaint often deems the book inappropriate or offensive. What does this mean? The person requesting removal of the book is usually worried or scared that the book will psychologically damage young people and give them a distorted understanding of social codes. We worry that a book that portrays bad decisions teaches bad decision-making.
Those fears might be exacerbated by Kurtz’s statement that for some readers, reading the book is “almost like asking an adult [for advice], but not exactly.” However, he goes on to say that readers look to YA for topics they’re not comfortable with (and don’t feel comfortable asking about), and that they read to experience something that is not their own experience. They are vicariously experiencing things through the book. Vicarious exploration is far safer than going out and committing these ask oneself. As the controversial YA author Melvin Burgess writes, reading “an opportunity for readers explore moral issues in a practical way” that precludes acting on their impulses.
Moreover, if a book and it addresses sexuality (or violence), it’s assumed that the end result is going to be the young adult reading it engaging in a similar. However, research has found otherwise: people do not practice what they read!
Books for young people are often seen as simply existing to “teach them to behave” (Schuelke), but of course teen readers usually seek books that violate this dictum, preferring to make their own judgements rather than being lectured by the author. This is not unreasonable, as teen brains possess critical reasoning faculties. It’s not surprise that teens are eager to exercise these.
Schuelke pointed out that when a teen finds a book that upsets or disturbs them, they will self-censor. If a book isn’t aligned with their worldview they’ll put it down. I have seen teen do this many a time (“it was too much” “I didn’t like the part where [something that upset them] happened, so I decided to stop reading”), and I always encourage them to follow their instincts. If a book feels too overwhelming or too abrasive, it’s okay to put it down. If they’re still interested in the material, they can always return to it when they’re older and feeling better equipped to handle subject matter.
While this is not a definitive look at how reading morally challenging material effects teen readers, the implications are heartening. The majority of teen readers appear prepared to read critically, to use books to explore new experiences and evaluate them, and to set aside materials for which they feel unprepared. Of course, this does suggest that external forces, like adults and peers are important influences who may get a great deal wrong. That is a topic for a different post.
 People also generally don’t practice what they watch. A 2007 article from The American Journal of Psychotherapy titled “Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?” (authors: Bruce Ballon and Molyn Leszcz) suggests that in the few cases that people have been driven to reproduce in real life the gruesome scenes from horror films, the people involved were already suffering severe psychological problems unrelated to that or any other film.