Parents struggle to learn to speak emoji

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Texting a simple smiley face is not enough for some people. After all, there’s the smiley with tears or the smiley with sunglasses — and don’t forget the smiley with heart eyes — to choose from.

Done't Cason, 17, center, explains the meaning of emojis to aunts Donna Brown, left, and Connie Cothorn, in her Romulus home this week.

Emoji symbols — small digital images or icons used to express an idea or feeling — have become a popular way to add emotional cues to text messages and posts on social media sites, such as Twitter and Snapchat.

But for some users, especially teens, emojis are a language all their own — one that parents are not privy to. The symbols, either alone or in combination with others, can be used as code for drug use, sexual activity or other risky behavior.

“A few times, during chats on Instagram, someone will send me a lewd emoji, and I always end up blocking their username name after that,” said Done’t Cason, 17, a junior at Woodhaven High School. “My friends and I use emoji symbols to communicate, but we just use the standard happy face with tears because you don’t want to keep using LOL — laughing out loud — all of the time.”

Done’t’s aunt, Donna Brown of Romulus, who co-parents the teen with her sister, Connie Cothorn of Belleville, said she had a hard time figuring out a series of emoji codes that some teens use.

“After finding out what some of these symbols mean, I was really appalled,” Brown said. “Some children spend too much time on their phone if they are able to come up with these codes.”

The first 172 emoji characters were created in 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita in Japan for a software company. Since then, the number has expanded to more than 700 symbols that include zodiac signs, food and weapons.

Some innocuous-seeming symbols aren’t as innocent as they appear when used by young people in texts or online posts. For instance, an emoji of a pair of eyes can be a request for nude photos; a smiley with a zippered mouth, paired with one of a male-female couple, means “don’t tell parents.”

“You can never underestimate children,” said Kim Van Dyke of Madison Heights, whose daughter, Casey Van Dyke, is a freshman at Lamphere High School.

“It totally makes sense that kids would use emojis to speak to each other. It’s a visual so texts won’t get lost in translation,” she said. “But some of the other moms that I talk to told me about the new codes that are out there. A fox symbol means ‘sneak out,’ or a book means ‘tell your parents you are studying’ if you are doing something else.”

Sam Srauy, an assistant professor of communications at Oakland University, said that in a way, emojis are nothing new. They’re just the newest way for teens to use language to conceal some of their thoughts and activities from parents.

“Since the 1980s and before that, teens and young adults have used words that mean something totally different to describe something else,” Srauy said. “It’s no different than when the word crystal was used for drugs. Now, the eggplant symbol is used to describe a male private part. Humans love their analogies.”

Last April, the social media site Instagram, banned the eggplant emoji because some users were using it to tag nude photos. Other emoji symbols have caused a stir. Earlier this year, a New York teen was arrested after he used a gun and syringe emoji to threaten police on Twitter.

Marketers have noticed the public’s fascination with the vivid faces and other characters, which are popping up on pillows, keychains and clothing.

Casey Van Dyke and her mother, Kim, talk about how to use emojis in Madison Heights.

This summer, the Kalamazoo Growlers minor league baseball team plans to outfit its players in emoji-covered “Emojerseys” for a game in August, with fans voting for the top 25 emojis to be used. Sony Pictures plans to release an animated emoji movie in 2017.

Casey Van Dyke, 14, uses emoji symbols so she won’t be misunderstood through text.

“With my friends, it can be hard to detect sarcasm, so we use emojis to express our emotions,” Casey said. “It’s weird to type ‘I’m happy.’ It’s easier to just put a smiley face.”

While texting or emojis won’t be going away anytime soon, Cothorn insists that calling someone on the phone is still the ideal way to communicate.

“To use an emoji to drive a point home is fine. A smiley face or a cake emoji to wish someone happy birthday is OK, but to communicate with just emojis is horrible,” she said. “Overall, teens need to text less and talk more.”

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