A Parent's Guide to Emoji, Acronyms and Emoticons

Smily Faces

If you feel like reading text messages has become an exercise in code breaking, you’re right. Some people still send plain texts but many, especially kids, stuff their messages with abbreviations, acronyms, smileys and slang.

In the absence of body language, facial expression and tone of voice, symbols are a way to convey additional information about thoughts and feelings. Being aware of the secret language of texting — and talking about it now and then — creates one more opportunity for parents to help kids develop relationships that are healthy and rewarding.

To get a grip on what kids are saying, parents need to know the most common forms of code.


Acronyms can be silly — ROLF (Rolling on the Floor Laughing), practical — BRB (Be Right Back) or subversive — 420 (using marijuana). A complete list of acronyms, including 50 that every parent should know, appears at netlingo.com.


Using the characters on a standard keyboard, people have created thousands of clever combinations that transform into faces if you turn your head sideways. An exhaustive list is available at cool-smileys.com/text-emoticons.


Often used to refer to any tiny graphic that occupies the space of one character, emojis technically are the 722 characters that have been incorporated into the Unicode keyboard. (The consortium recently introduced 250 more characters, including faces with different skin tones). Companies are given latitude in interpreting the characters, so an emoji won’t necessarily look the same on Apple, Google, Twitter or Microsoft. Learn more at emojipedia.org.


These graphic elements aren’t associated with the keyboard. Some are embedded in specific apps and won’t work anywhere else. Others can be purchased and pasted wherever you please. To avoid adware and other problems, be sure kids download free sticker apps only from trusted sources like the Apple Store or Google Play.

All of these elements enliven text messages. For parents, the question isn’t so much whether kids are using code but how. Here are some things to consider:

Appreciate the creativity.
Like music and painting, the images used in text are an effort to capture ideas and feelings that aren’t easily put into words. Deepen your child’s emotional intelligence by talking about the nuances of emotion in emoji faces.

Discuss ambiguity.
Emojis and even acronyms are open to interpretation. Pop an acronym into acronymfinder.com and you’ll come up with multiple meanings. BYOB, for example, might mean bring your own beer or bike or even book. Emojis can also be misunderstood. In Japan, a pile of poo is regarded as good luck, though that isn’t necessarily the first thought that springs to mind in other countries. If you post a tiny fist are you threatening to punch someone or offering a congratulatory fist bump? Talk to kids about the risks of sending the wrong message and strategies for repairing miscommunication.

Consider intent.
For most kids, adding code to text is simply a way to connect with friends. Still, parents need to be aware that acronyms in particular can be used to camouflage messages about illicit activities, including sex and drugs. Children need supervision so you can be sure they are texting only with friends who won’t lead them into situations they aren’t mature enough to handle.

Recognize limits.
No matter how you dress them up, text messages won’t do justice to certain kinds of communication, including apologies, condolences or even gratitude. Remind your child that face-to-face communication is still the best way to make a heartfelt connection with another person.

Reiterate the rules.
Texting of any kind should be subject to the usual rules about online communication, and be sure your child understands that texting privileges are contingent on following these rules.

  • Don’t abuse or harass other people.
  • Don’t talk to people you don’t know in real life.
  • Don’t send sexually explicit messages.

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit growing-up-online.com to read some of her other columns.