Forget flowers, chocolates and a dinner date; nothing says ‘I love you’ like a heart scrolling across a screen. Tell a boy you like him with the heart between two people emoji, and propose marriage with the church, top hat and girl on wedding day emojis. Welcome to 2016. One of the greatest ironies of the modern world is the emoji. Technology gifted us the internet, opening up a cornucopia of communication and yet we’ve reverted back to hieroglyphic expression because text and Twitter afford neither the time nor space to convey tone and emotion with an excess of language.

Rudyard Kipling called words the most powerful drug used by mankind. Was he wrong? Emojis seem to be eating up the alphabet faster than Pac-Man on steroids. The emoji dictionary is ever-increasing, and in 2015 ‘emoji’ was named the word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the Bible has been emojified – 3,300 pages worth of picture writing.

Technology gifted us the internet, opening up a cornucopia of communication and yet we’ve reverted back to hieroglyphic expression because text and Twitter afford neither the time nor space to convey tone and emotion with an excess of language

This is all well and good, but for those trying to raise communicative children, the rise of the emoji is apocalyptic. Principally, emoji, as a language, is regressive – using symbols to replace words and emphasise tone undermines the thought and intellect it takes to construct sentences and convey emotion. Emojis are limiting – operating as a linguistic crutch; stilting spelling and grammar – and the worry is that excessive use of an emoji dictionary could impede a person’s ability to communicate effectively. In fact, two recent studies, one by the University of Tasmania and another published in Reading’s Journal of Research, cite evidence suggesting the debilitating effect of emojis on language as a dynamic mode of expression.

It’s for this reason that many pre-millennials (and a couple of die-hard literature students) feel supremely rebellious against this modern day hieroglyph as a form of communication; it reeks of ‘dumbing down’ and in order not to appear, well, dumb emojis are avoided altogether or used ironically – like in Penguin’s OMG Shakespeare series that re-imagines the bard’s most famous plays in text form. The emoji translations are funny and cool and accessible – from the perspective of someone who understands the nuance of language and appreciates the evolution of culture, hence the irony. But what happens if you know no other way – if you’re born into a world that speaks primarily by picture; when “If music be the food of love play on” looks like musical note emoji, bowl of noodles emoji, heart emoji and gaming control emoji in your child’s school-prescribed copy of Twelfth Night? Uh… Screaming face emoji, right?

Emoji’s are enough to up the panic in any parent but before we move to a desert island and go all Mussolini on phones, iPads and all the rest of it, perspective has something to say, and she comes in the form of child development expert Natalia Kucirkova (specialist in parent-child shared book reading and the role of personalisation in the development of children’s early literacy, and a lecturer in Developmental Psychology at The Open University). Kucirkova reminds us that there is no rigorous research in relation to digital emojis and young children – a majority of current research comes from the teenage population, mostly female and in Japan. That emojis will affect children’s relationship with others, as well as with texts and stories and the wider environment, is a sure thing, according to Kucirkova, but whether this effect will be positive or negative is difficult to say without going into specifics (how much children use them, how early on, the wider practices in their family and school).

Pre-millennials (and a couple of die-hard literature students) feel supremely rebellious against this modern day hieroglyph as a form of communication; it reeks of ‘dumbing down’ and in order not to appear, well, dumb emojis are avoided altogether

Used constructively and within the context of a broad understanding of language and communication, emojis aren’t all bad. They may be extreme versions of emotion but there is something valuable in their minimalism. In spite of the fact that the exaggerated emoji-form lacks the detail we see in the human face that is necessary for cueing an understanding of the conveyed feeling, the little critters can be used in difficult situations to help children express themselves – like the recent ‘abused emoji’ app that features a set of 15 emojis based on existing icons, each revised to portray different types of physical and psychological harm.

The idea is that children who not only lack the cognitive resources to explain acts and feelings but have been emotionally scarred might find it easier to open up through explanation by emoji. Research proves that young children are attracted to faces, especially cute faces – it’s known as the ‘baby schema effect’, or the effect of considering babies with more infantile features cuter. Kewpie dolls – anyone? Complementing these findings is a study by Privitera (in 2013), which revealed that usually by two years, children are able to talk about basic feelings like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Three-year-olds are able to match certain concepts with basic emotions, like, healthy foods with a happy face and not healthy with a sad face. In essence, ‘abused emojis’ are a techno-version of play or art therapy, which is how psychologists encourage little ones to express themselves, especially if they’ve been through trauma. 

Kucirkova argues that because contemporary communication is enveloped in screen-based interaction, it seems fruitful to integrate emojis into the teaching of visual-based media and emotional competence. She imagines several creative ways in which practitioners or parents might use emojis with young children: for example, asking children to guess what the other person might be feeling when they send a smiley face; help them label the emotion (aiding in the development of their emotional vocabulary) and encourage them to think about their own emotions. Very importantly, emojis can help children make links between their current and past emotions and how they relate to the emotions of their friends, parents, grandparents and how to best depict these. And why not get children to create their own emojis? It’d be a gas to see how little ones visualise their own expressions and how they interpret them.

One of the OMG Shakespeare books carries the dedication: “To all my extraordinary English teachers, I’m sorry”. But there’s no need to apologise. Time changes. Society moves on, inevitably, and hatin’ on emojis is not going to make them go away…the same applies to social media and anything else techno-related that seems intent on destroying the vitality of face-to-face communication and the intricacies and complexities inherent in words. As with all things parenting, the trick is balance – a piece of chocolate once your dinner is finished; half-an-hour of TV if you’ve done your homework; an emoji face once you’ve articulated its meaning – in words. When it comes to language, it’s okay to break the rules when you know what the rules are. Be aware, engage children in discussion and balance their use of technology (where they are most likely to use emojis) so that they are able to distinguish language, in all its forms and contexts – thumbs up emoji.

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