Parents try to figure out baffling world of emojis

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Teenagers can use way more than the usual happy faces and hearts when it comes to using emoji's to communicate. (KGO-TV)

Emojis are everywhere and there is a huge range of pictures and symbols all over texts and social media. Some teenagers even use them as a kind of hidden language. ABC7 News found out why experts say parents need to pay attention.

You might call them modern day hieroglyphics. Emojis are pictures meant to say more than just words.

Elias Kuhns said his friend Aroline Shawber "ends conversations with a chipmunk because she thinks it's cute."

Shawber chimed in and said, "Over text it's hard to convey your emotions sometimes, so adding a facial expression or whatever, it lightens the mood I guess."

They can be sweet and silly or scary. A New York teenager was accused of threatening police with a gun emoji on social media. In Illinois, prosecutors say another teen showed support for ISIS by tagging violent videos with emojis. Good or bad, emojis are changing the way teenagers interact.

Mother Tori Johnson said, "And it's sad because children don't know how to talk to each other these days."

Paul Booth, a media studies professor at DePaul University, said, "The 12-year-olds, the 13-year-olds, they've had emojis since they've been using cellphones, so to them it is how they communicate. It's something primal. There's something about an image that really communicates emotion to us."

But some parents worry emojis are now a barrier to understanding kids and keeping them safe.

One episode of the ABC7 show "Castle" illustrates a real life problem -- many adults find deciphering emojis nearly impossible.

We found an expert to decode a message containing just a happy face with sunglasses and leaves. Eddie Bocanegra leads a YMCA Youth Program and says many teens use emojis like code.

He looked at the message and said, "Right away, to me, it's like someone who's got this cool look who is really about to smoke some weed."

Bocanegra said teens "talk about sex, talk about drugs, talk about neighborhoods... I mean you name it."

With thousands of emojis out there now, experts say they are really the latest version of an age-old problem.

"Kids have always created languages that parents don't understand. Any kind of slang, any kind of way to communicate in some sort of secret," Booth said.

Mother Donna Philipsien won't use emojis when sending messages to her children, even though her kids think that's not fun. They may send her an eyeroll emoji.

For parents trying to sort it all out, there are now websites to help them translate messages and of course, there's the simplest tool of all. Bocanegra said parents could simply ask their children what the emojis mean.

"When you both understand what an emoji means, communication is facilitated. Communication works," Booth said.
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