NPR reporter Lulu Miller, inspired by a 5-year-old she knew who was using nothing but emoji in their texts, started wondering if there was any existing research about preliterate children who only communicated through emoji. She started a thread on Twitter, but since no studies could be found, a survey was started to further investigate this issue.
Which emoji kids use, and why?
The aim of the survey was not only to establish if kids used emoji in their texts, but more importantly, which emoji they used, and why? How are emoji organized into sequences and concepts, and how does the process of learning how to read affect this type of communication? Therefore, parents as well as other people who have kids in their life were asked to copy-paste a number of their kids’ messages, removing only names and any identifying details. The findings are fascinating from a linguistic point of view.
Kids’ use of emoji may appear to be random- a number of silly icons on a screen. However, they learn both spoken and signed languages in a similar manner: babbling nonsense syllables teaches them about conversation rhythm and shows them how to make articulatory movements. The emoji strings sent by children may work in the same way. By opening children up to the rhythm of online conversations, emoji might serve as a predecessor to reading, making kids accustomed to the digital-age communication through symbols with the people they hold dear.
When it comes to the survey findings, a lot of kids who are too young to read, mainly between the age of three to five, send texts only containing emoji which are often rather elaborate. There is a 5-year-old who typically chose emojis with pinching animals, such as the string shown below:
Another 5-and-a-half-year-old’s favourite emojis included animals, poo, unicorns, and hearts. There was a kid the same age who preferred unicorns, poo, lighting and dinosaurs. Clearly defined preferences weren’t observed among younger children, although they eagerly used emoji. An exemplary string of animal and heart emoji from a 3-year-old can be seen below:
Charming as these texts are, from a linguistic point of view, it is significant to establish what message kids are trying to get across with these emoji. Many kids appear to be showing a systematic approach to emoji. For instance, some of them tend to put the blue heart emoji followed by the green heart, which is the same order in which they are placed in emoji keyboard applications. However, they also gladly mix emoji from various screens, in particular animals, foods, and hearts, which are all located in various emoji keyboard sections.
How children use emoji varies from how adults or teenagers do it
One thing is for sure: how children use emoji varies from how adults or teenagers do it. Generally, the most popular emoji include the face, heart, and hand emoji. While the first two are commonly used by kids, hand emoji- including thumbs up 👍 and prayer hands 🙏- are not typical for younger users. By contrast, object emoji, like food and animals, are significantly more popular among kids than adults and teenagers. Another interesting observation is that while both kids and adults enjoy happy faces, their face choices vary: kids don’t use the faces that communicate sarcasm, including the popular tears of joy 😂, crying face 😭, or thinking emoji 🤔. What they use instead are faces with the tongue sticking out 😛 or blowing a kiss 😗.
Emoji strings are used by kids in a different manner. In conversations of adults, sequences of words are typically followed by two to five emoji, for instance: “I LITERALLY CAN’T HANDLE THIS 😂😂😂” or “omg i love you 💛💛”. Communication through emoji-only texts usually takes place in one of the two scenarios: when recapping a story they want the other person to guess, or treating emoji as a means to create something visually pleasing, emoji art of sorts.
When it comes to kids, they are less organized, with their emoji of choice taking the form of a drawing, or an array of stickers. Their texts also tend to be longer, and they are more likely to contain the same emoji three, five, or as many as 20 times in a row.
With age, as kids learned how to read and write, their texts became more sophisticated. It was observed that a six-year-old and an almost-seven-year-old, who were both fluent in reading, sent texts messages including not only semantically appropriate words, but also emoji sequences that weren’t so random anymore, for example:
🎀💎🐈🐾🐱🌺🌸🌷🌷🌹🍀☘️🌿🌸💐🌷🌹🥀🌺🍃🍂🍁🌾🍄🌿☘️🍀🌸🌼🌻🐯🐱🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈🐈💐🌷🌹🥀🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🥀🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹🌷🌷🌷🌷🌷💐🌷🌷🌷🌷💐💐💐💐💐💐💐💐💐💐woo hoo love 💕
After a few years, kids appear to grow out of the phase of sending random emoji sequences completely. A 10-year-old texted using complete English sentences, and when she communicated only through emoji, her messages contained line breaks and spacing in order to create bigger images such as a face made entirely out of face emoji. It was observed by many adults that their kids’ emoji usage decreased after they learned how to read – which can be comforting for those worrying about the evolution of the English language.
What is the long-term effect on kids of using emoji?
Having said that, what is the long-term effect on kids of using emoji? The real impact of such messages might be larger than a single message. Research proves that media exposure is not sufficient in order for children to learn a language, and that human interaction is necessary, at least to initiate the language-learning process.
As part of one research, research assistants spent over 4 weeks communicating with 9-month-old children from monolingual English-speaking families in Mandarin. They would adjust their speaking pace, read children’s books in Mandarin, and play with a number of toys. Naturally, children from that control group had better recollection of Mandarin sounds than children who interacted with English-speaking assistants. Later on, the second group of children were played a video of the same assistants reading the same children’s books and playing with the same toys, only this time in Mandarin. Despite being exposed to the same information as the first control group, listening to the recordings did not lead to any improvement in their recollection of Mandarin sounds.
Whereas children that already speak a certain language can expand their vocabulary by watching children’s TV programs, for example Sesame Street or Mister Rogers Neighborhood, they cannot learn grammar or sounds from watching TV. When they are not exposed to a given language in real life, they are unlikely to learn much in general. Human interaction is crucial in the language learning process, which can be applied to emoji messages as well.
We can treat sending long emoji sequences as digital babbling: these random strings get us accustomed to how our bodies work and teach us how to hold a conversation. The adults replying to the kids occasionally included emoji in their texts, but they often replied with words or combined words and emoji, even if the child could not read yet, probably assuming the owner of the phone would read it to them.
Let’s think about how this is affecting children’s perception of reading and writing. Back in the day, it was a matter of children’s books or cereal boxes, which were often accompanied by colorful, child-friendly images. They were all designed by professionals in order to teach children a literacy lesson, how to spell their name, or give them a story about talking animals. They weren’t used to communicate with children- there was no point in leaving a child a note before they were even able to read it.
Parents still read picture books to their children. However, now that written communication has significantly increased, they also read them text messages. Receiving a text message that was written specifically for them, read aloud to them, which they can give a reply to teaches kids a powerful lesson about the written word— that they can use it to interact with their loved ones.