DENVER -- It was Oxford Dictionary's word of the year. And it's quickly becoming the universal language of the Internet -- after Apple included an emoji keyboard on its phones five years ago.
It's estimated 6 billion emojis are sent each day. But the cartoonish, seemingly innocent and playful use of emojis can have a dark side. It's a new form of communication Sheila Allison and her 12-year-old use regularly.
"I work odd hours. When she's getting ready to go to sleep, it's not appropriate for me to be on the phone or call and have her hear my voice. So emojis with the zzz's, princess and kisses. That gets a really good message to her," Allison said.
Emojis are on TV. Even commercials advertise with the picture characters. But the problem with these icons of faces, hand gestures, fruits, animals and other symbols is they don't always mean what you think, especially for parents.
"It doesn't mean anything to them. But it does to those who are fluent in emoji, the secret language of emoji," said Mike Harris, who tracks down child predators for a living.
He works for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office and said he has to learn this whole new language of more than 1,200 emojis.
“One symbol can mean three or four different things. That's what makes it complicated for those who are not familiar with this," Harris said.
So he uses the "Speak Emoji" app to translate what people are saying because emojis can be used to harass, threaten and commit other crimes.
"Do you have any weed?” he speaks into his phone.
"A check mark is 'do.' 'Have' is down, 'any' is the face and that's weed," he pointed out what his app popped up.
Harris said some emojis are obviously threatening. A 12-year-old Virginia girl was arrested for using gun, bomb, and knife emojis on Instagram with the phrase "meet me in the library Tuesday."
But some emojis aren't so obvious.
- A frog can mean someone is "ugly."
- A cute image of a dog can actually be an insult of the b-word.
- A smiling pile of poop is another profanity.
- Strung together, a running man and a bowling ball means, "I'm going to hit you."
- Scissors mean "I'm going to cut you."
- A knife, a certain face and a shower equals psycho.
- A skull with a right arrow and a fire means “die in a fire.”
"Something as simple as a flower can mean ‘drugs,’" Harris said.
Parents also should know some emojis are sexual. A peach, an eggplant and raindrops reference carnal desire.
“If you're talking about the weather, then it could mean it's raining,” Serena Allison said.
“But with fruit, it's a sexual content? Great," Sheila Allison said.
"Also, the banana. That's another,” Serena said.
“They are taking fruit to a whole new level here, right?" her mom said.
What makes emojis so complicated for parents is they have no set definition like words and their meaning can vary.
A few more examples:
- A pig can mean the animal or a police officer
- The symbol of a water closet or restroom can also mean woman crush
- Footprints can also mean beer.
"I can see where parents are 'Oh, gosh, something else now.' Ten years from now there will be something else too. It's the way technology is," Harris said.
For this mom, the technology doesn't have her too worried yet.
"I see, too, where kids could use that to be vicious," Allison said.
Important emoji resources
Here are links to several emoji-type dictionaries for parents to use as reference.
You can reach out to the Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations Unit at the Jefferson County District Attorney's via email or at 303-271-6766.