Woman texting with surprised look on face


I’m Using All The Wrong Emojis Says My Teen

Jan 22, 2021

I crossed the line with my teen. I made the mother of all mistakes by commenting on her Instagram post.

She flipped, but not because I crowded her in the comments section. No. She was miffed that I made the tragic error of using an ill-placed winky emoji. It was unforgivable and now I’m getting schooled in all things emoji.

For those of you who dabble in a ‘smiley face’ here or ‘thumbs' there — you should know Gen Z is judging you. You’re talking their language and you might not be as fluent as you think. Emojis are a growing means of communication for young people and, I’ve recently learned, the language has become rather nuanced.

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Emojis evolved from emoticons back in the '90s when standard keyboard users had to get creative to express emotion in text. People started combining letters, numbers and punctuation marks into primitive faces. I’m old school — I still find I’m adding a :) or :p or :0 in emails.

These emotive symbols evolved into emojis thanks to a Japanese artist named Shigetaka Kurita who wanted a purely pictographic language to convey information. His original emoticons included hearts, cars and a snowman, but not human faces. 

Emojis slowly spread around the world and grew in popularity. Part of the appeal of symbols is that they transcend language and offer a way to communicate with anyone regardless of language or even literacy.

"But it’s important for me as a parent to understand that this is a form of language that is developing quickly and it’s a challenge to keep up with."

As of 2021, there are apparently 3,353 different emojis to cover every emotion imagined as well as inclusive symbols for different skin tones, gender identities and social justice movements.

With that many icons available at the stroke of a keyboard, it’s no wonder that the meaning behind some symbols is complex. When I tried to get to the bottom of why it was a crime for me to use a winky face, my daughter told me that it’s an uncool emoji that no one uses.

When I asked my daughter for more info about the subtlety of emoji language she told me I wouldn’t be able to understand. For more insight, she showed me a text exchange with a friend. I was surprised to see how few words were shared. Their communication was largely a combo of emojis I had never seen before and selfies.

She’s right — I don’t get it.

And that’s because it’s a language I don’t speak.

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Further online probing taught me that not only is there a slew of unfashionable emojis, but also many are used to conceal meaning from adults. For example, sometimes a green plant or broccoli = marijuana, an ice cube = meth, a snowflake = cocaine and hotdog or taco = sex.

Of course, when it comes to kids, a snowman could actually mean a snowman. But it’s important for me as a parent to understand that this is a form of language that is developing quickly and it’s a challenge to keep up with.

Aside from keeping an eye on the emojis that might be popping up on my child’s screen, it also serves as a good reminder for me to use emojis with a degree of caution, particularly when communicating with younger people. I will think twice about that eggplant emoji when wondering if my teen wants parmesan for dinner.

Words have power, but so do emojis. ;0

Article Author Laura Mullin
Laura Mullin

Read more from Laura here.

Laura Mullin is a published playwright and writer and the co-artistic director of the award-winning company, Expect Theatre. She is also the co-host and producer of PlayME, a podcast that transforms plays into audio dramas now on CBC. She has worked in theatre, film, and television and lives in Toronto with her writer/producer husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @expectlaura.

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