Deciphering Teen Text Messages

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Most parents know “LOL” means “laughing out loud.” You may even know that “420” refers to marijuana. But you may not know that “53X” is a text code for sex. That worries Brian Bason, CEO at Bark (, a company that has created a new text message monitoring app. For $9 a month, Bark promises to alert parents when kids text something risky.

Of course, slang is nothing new. Using freshly minted words that adults won’t understand appeals to kids for two reasons.

First, it helps kids establish and reinforce a social identity, and people who understand the same secret language are likely to be part of the same tribe. Second, slang allows kids to fly under the adult radar, talking about things that might be forbidden if translated.

Text messaging has added a new dimension for kids using slang. Keyboards are tiny. Attention spans are short. Acronyms and emojis make it possible to crowd a lot of information into a small space. As a result, messages have become more cryptic and harder for parents to decipher.

New slang being used online is often harmless and even creative. Most people know FOMO means “fear of missing out,” IRL means “in real life” and BRB means “be right back.” Other useful acronyms include JSYK, which means “just so you know,” SMH means “shaking my head,” and YOLO means “you only live once.”

Still, parents need to be alert. Kids can get into trouble texting. Speech that is unacceptable “IRL” should be off-limits in texts. In particular, parents should monitor texts that fall into the following areas.


Most teens seem to have gotten the message that sending nude photos isn’t a good idea. That doesn’t mean teens aren’t texting about sex or “53X.” Even emojis may have a double meaning — an eggplant can stand in for a male's genitals and a peach may refer to someone’s backside.  


Using coded language is a way to evade legal authorities as well as parents. Talk to other parents and even school counselors who often know the latest lingo. Drug terms sometimes have more than one meaning. Dabbing, for example, is a dance craze and a way to use cannibas, which is another name for marijuana. Lit can mean getting high or simply having a good time.


Texting and social media are often used to bully and abuse other people because of their gender, race, ethnic origin or disabilities. Be clear with your child. A slur is a slur, and you won’t tolerate abusive language in any setting.

Bad Language

If you don’t want your child to say or text the “F” word or other profanities, discourage the use of acronyms like WTF and CYA. The best way to know what an acronym means is to ask the child who used it, but you can find lists of common acronyms and their meanings at (search for “text speak”) and

Databases that keep up with slang as it’s created and slang collections can be found on these websites: (search for “slang”)


Carolyn Jabs is the author of “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.” Learn more at