Do Emoji Help Or Impair Digital Communication? - MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds

Do Emoji Help Or Impair Digital Communication?

Emoji - Puzzle image of heart smiley emoji

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Posted in: Hot Topics, Parenting Concerns, You & Your Family

Topics: Culture + Society

Do emoji improve or impair digital communication? We might be able to learn from our kids.

If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, do these little clipart-like images enhance the way we communicate?  “Emoji” was pronounced this year’s top-trending word by The Global Language Monitor, and it was also added to the Oxford English Dictionary (ironic, because it’s a word that describes the concept of communicating using small pictures instead of using actual words).

What is an emoji?  

Emoji are small icons or digital images of things like faces, food, flags, hearts, weather, buildings, etc. commonly found on smartphone keyboards.  Emoji are different from the older emoticon, which was typically meant to convey an emotion or attitude through a facial expression created by using traditional letters and punctuation symbols—such as the smiley face made of a colon and parenthesis “:).”

Emoji began in Japan in the 1990s, a society already well adapted to using picture as part of written communication.  In 2011 they entered the US lexicon in a significant way when Apple added them to the standard iOS 5 keyboard.

It is estimated that the average female teen sends and receives over 3,000 text messages per month.  We also know that the use of the exclamation point has been on the rise, possibly suggesting that digital communicators are looking for a means of increasing the emotional emphasis within their messages.  According to the website Emojitracker, which uses Twitter to calculate emoji usage, people are averaging 250 to 350 emoji tweets a second.  Faces are most prevalent, but there are more complicated sequences, too.

Do emoji convey something that words can’t?

It’s so hard to convey emotion in a text, and even harder to convey it accurately.  In a 2008 article in The Academy of Management Review, Kristin Byron finds that email generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication—we tend to misinterpret positive email messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative than the sender intended.  The challenge becomes even more difficult when you shorten that communication to the length of a text or tweet.  So, perhaps emoji are the “music” to add to the words, the non-verbal parts of speech, like body language and facial expressions, that get left out in online communication.  But, are they a poor substitute?  It’s hard to know when they are being used ironically or matter-of-factly, so there is still ample room for confusion and misunderstanding.

And, it’s not only the emotional tone that is hard to interpret.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to decode the actual meaning of an emoji.  While some of the images are easily identifiable, many are left somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation.  A recent controversy made national news when it was suggested that the emoji representing “praying hands” (:pray:) might actually have been two hands in a high-five.  Cultures will pull their own meanings from these images, and small groups of friends (e.g., micro-cultures) may even define them in entirely different ways that are unique to that group/micro-culture.

Do they enhance or hurt communication?

Although the images often remind us of 1990s clipart, emoji often enrich communication.  Pictures inherently convey some level of affect or emotional meaning.  They are a low-hanging fruit, an easy way for kids to add some emotional color to their texts and tweets.

A list of the hundred most used emoji is dominated by various emoji with smiles and heart themes—the universal meaning of positivity is pretty clear.  For those dedicated to emoji, and those who prefer pictures to words impressive scenes can be constructed using these small images.

Parenting in the emoji-era

Parents would be wise to engage their children in a discussion of how they are using emoji.  Not only will these conversations give parents a glimpse into their children’s worlds, but they will have the added benefit of letting the children teach their parents about how to use technology.

There may be some downsides to emoji as well.  Certainly the use of iconic images does not help what teachers describe as the decaying spelling and grammar abilities among Millennials.  Additionally, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in some of the images.  For example, if one received :tada: :gift: :cake: it would seem to express appropriate birthday wishes.  Less clear is how one interprets the meaning of a :octopus:.  And, even though facial expressions and emoticons are both visual expressions of emotion, it’s a whole lot easier to accurately decode the meaning of an in-person wink or eyes filled with tears.  If you want to convey something powerful or subtle, you’ll probably do better than to just send a :broken_heart:.

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Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.

Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.

Tristan Gorrindo, M.D. is the director of education for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in Washington, D.C. He was formerly the managing director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard M...

To read full bio click here.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. is the author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids (...

To read full bio click here.