Emojis are fun, aren’t they? Those cute little animals, facial expressions, and mermaids add flavor to your texted conversations and can help you indicate that something is light-hearted if there’s a chance of it being misconstrued.
Teens like them, too, but sometimes those seemingly innocent little pictures take on a life—and language—of their own.
The Secret Language
The emoji language is nothing new, and even two years ago, news outlets were reporting on how children and teens use emojis to communicate in a “secret language.” Often referred to as “modern-day hieroglyphics,” emojis have grown from a convenient way to indicate sarcasm or a joke into a nearly complete mode of communication.
Emojisaurus gives examples of common and random phrases translated into emojis by users. This sheds light on how well you can tell a story using nothing but tiny pictures; it also shows how difficult it can be to translate emojis accurately. Five different people could come up with five reasonable but different translations—which is something we see happen when different people translate books or articles from any language to another.
When is a smiley face not just a smiley face?
Sometimes, the potential for an emoji to mean something else is clear: it’s not hard to imagine the fire emoji, for example, being used to describe someone as “hot”. Sometimes it’s trickier: the peach, the taco, and the eggplant are regularly used in a sexual context to indicate the buttocks and female and male genitalia.
There is a wide range of emojis that can have a second or third meaning on their own or in combination. For example, Emojipedia offers additional insight into the Thinking Face emoji.
“Used to indicate thinking, or deep thought. Can be paired with a thought-balloon or a light bulb, to indicate an idea, and is sometimes used to question the intelligence of a written statement aka throwing shade at a person or concept.”
The news article mentioned above also gives some potential translations, including these:
- Frog: Someone or something ugly
- Skull + Right Arrow + Fire: “Die in a fire”
- Leaves: Marijuana
- Flower: Drugs
- Running Person + Bowling Ball: “I’m going to hit you”
- Knife + Face Screaming in Fear + Shower: Psycho
- Popcorn/Movie Camera + Snowflake: Netflix and Chill
Threatening violence by sending the scissors (“I’m going to cut you”) or a knife emoji is one issue; the sexual conversations that can happen via emojis is another.
The single symbols that reference anatomy can be used in combination with various hand gesture emojis, the tongue emoji, and the water droplet emoji to outline elaborate sexual stories or fantasies. The popcorn and the snowflake combine to mean “Netflix and Chill” which, as defined by Urban Dictionary and as many parents now know, means to engage in sexual activity. The Cut dives a bit deeper into various sexual phrases using emojis.
This article shares the most widely used suggestive emojis and emoji combinations on Twitter over a brief period in 2015. Like any language, the language of emojis has evolved and changed, but this provides an excellent outline of what to look for and expect in sexually suggestive texts and Tweets.
- Hatching Chicken + Honeybee + Speech Balloon: Sex Talk
- Eggplant + Peach: Representations of male and female genitalia
- Rocket + Train: Sexual Hint asking, “Ready for Sex?”
- Dancer + Eyes + Bikini: Foreplay
- Open Hands + Peach + Peach: Second Base
- Face With Open Mouth or Tongue: Oral Sex
- Splashing Sweat, Finger Positions or Fisted Hands: these symbols often have sexual meanings
Of course, sometimes the secret meaning of an emoji or pair of emojis evolves between two people or a group of people. They might combine a certain face with a particular arrow and the skull emoji, and it means something specific to them. Perhaps it’s, “I was so embarrassed I could die!”
Or maybe it means, “Watch out or I’ll hurt you.”
Or maybe: “Let’s go get high.”
The Potential Problem with Emojis as a Secret Language
It can get pretty sinister.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the use of emojis in online ads among sex traffickers. Their secret language enabled them to use emojis to communicate a wide range of appalling information right under the noses of anyone who wasn’t aware:
“…emojis, and not words, are now the primary means of communicating several things to would-be buyers, including that a sex service is for sale, that a victim is underage and that a person being trafficked has restricted movement (indicating the buyer must travel to the victim).
“According to the research, the most prominent emoji indicators of trafficking are the rose, rosette, cherry, cherry blossom, growing heart, airplane, and crown. The growing heart and cherry, for instance, highlight that the victim being trafficked is a minor, whereas an airplane relates that a person will be in town for a temporary amount of time.”
Hopefully that’s not something you will come across; however, speaking in emojis can still be a concern in your household.
You can’t know or control the language that develops between friends. They could be having conversations right in front of your face that mean something entirely different than you can imagine. The best you can do is develop an open line of communication between you and your children or establish the sort of internet usage ground rules that give you access to texts and inboxes.
Here are a few more quick tips for navigating the world of emojis:
- Stay aware of slang and trends: A quick internet search will give you more examples than you could possibly want when it comes to sexting with emojis.
- Have some go-to resources: Emojipedia outlines a few alternative uses of certain emojis.
- Ask your teens what it means: Perhaps they won’t tell you. But you might get some context clues (like their discomfort) that would help you understand what it might refer to.
- Take note of how you use emojis: We’re all human. This article notes, “Indeed, people are even developing syntax and rules of use for emoji…. when we use face emoji, we tend to put them before other objects. If you text about a late flight, you’ll put an unhappy face followed by a plane, not the reverse.” Your own patterns and instincts may offer insight into how your teens communicate with emojis, too.
- Use emojis with your teens: When you text your children, use emojis as appropriate and notice how they use the symbols with you.
Parenting in the digital age is no walk in the park, but keep this in mind: children and teens have long used secret languages and symbols. As you were growing up, you might have done the same with a best friend using specific phrases or even a secret handshake. This is really nothing new: we just have a relatively new and very efficient way of spreading it.
As a parent, you already keep an eye on your children and how they use the internet, perhaps with the help of trustworthy parental controls that cannot be circumvented to manage the sites your kids can and cannot access. Don’t let emojis overwhelm you: being aware of them and what they might mean is just one more part of what you’re already doing to keep your children safe and happy.