The Hamilton Spectator

What’s the deal with older adults and emojis?

Study finds elders can decode the emotion behind emojis, but use them less in messages

- MARK COLLEY TORONTO STAR

When Isabelle Boutet’s parents send her texts, they often include a mess of emojis.

They’re stuck at the end of the message, multiple in a row. She doesn’t know why her parents chose those emojis or what they mean.

“They can look like this busy, distractin­g stuff at the end of the text,” Boutet said. “How are they helping me process the text message? Often they don’t.”

It’s probably not because Boutet’s parents don’t know what the emojis mean. A new study led by Boutet at the University of Ottawa proved older adults are still able to decode the emotional meaning of emojis, even if they use them less and are less comfortabl­e doing so.

Instead, Boutet and other researcher­s are now on the hunt to test another hypothesis: whether the culture of emojis and how they’re used is what scares older adults away.

Why do emojis matter?

Boutet, a professor at uOttawa’s school of psychology, has spent the past four years studying the role of images in text-based communicat­ion like email and texting.

Research has shown emojis play an important role in digital communicat­ion. While people lose the non-verbal cues they rely on in face-to-face conversati­ons, emojis can help fill in the gap.

They help clarify messages and intensify their emotion. The more emojis someone uses, the more likely they are to be perceived as warm by the recipient, too. And using emojis in conversati­on can help two people feel closer to each other.

“Your use of emojis has an impact on how efficient your communicat­ion is,” Boutet explained, “but it also has an impact on kind of the social side of things, too.”

But Boutet’s research found older adults — those between 60 and 80 years old — use emojis less and find them harder to use. That’s a problem, Boutet said.

“If older adults are not adopting this new mode of communicat­ion, I personally think that they’re being left out of something that’s important,” she said. “Not just in terms of adapting to modernity, but because there’s actually functions … associated with the use of emojis.”

What did researcher­s find?

Since older adults have struggled to understand facial expression­s in previous studies, Boutet and the other researcher­s set out to find whether the same was true for emojis and if that could explain why older adults don’t use them as much.

But by using nine unambiguou­s face emojis — three happy, two sad, two surprised and one angry — researcher­s determined adults over 60 had no issues understand­ing the emotions the emojis represente­d.

“People are a bit surprised. OK, so older adults can decode emojis,” Boutet said. “That’s good to know, right? That means that’s not where the obstacle is. That means the obstacle is somewhere else.”

Instead, Boutet is now guessing that the culture of emojis — how to use them, as well as practical technology limitation­s — is what stands in the way.

Which emoji do older adults not understand?

The study found the wide-eye surprise emoji, with raised eyebrows, rosy cheeks and a thin line for a mouth, gave older adults the most trouble. But because that’s not a consistent finding across studies, Boutet can’t say definitive­ly if adults over 60 struggle with that emoji.

On the other hand, older adults understood one of the happy emojis better than younger adults.

Researcher­s purposely chose to not test for emojis whose meaning is ambiguous. That includes those with “implied meaning,” like the eggplant emoji, which has taken on a life of its own.

Is there a way to bridge the cultural gap?

Boutet said practical changes can make using emojis easier for older adults. She said the organizati­on of emojis — at least on iPhones — “makes no sense.” Putting unambiguou­s emojis first on the menu would make their use easier for older adults, while increasing the size of the menu would also help.

She also suggests community programs could help. Just like programs on how to use the internet or social media, a program on how to use emojis would help break down obstacles for older adults.

Above all, Boutet said it’s important to not let negative stereotype­s take over.

“They’re not confident, they’re not using them as much, but there’s one aspect of this thing, which is decoding the meaning of certain images, where they’re doing perfectly fine,” Boutet said. “We need to give them a little bit of a break.”

 ?? TORONTO STAR ILLUSTRATI­ON WITH DREAMSTIME IMAGES ?? One expert is guessing that the culture of emojis — how to use them, as well as practical technology limitation­s — is what keeps older adults from using them in messages.
TORONTO STAR ILLUSTRATI­ON WITH DREAMSTIME IMAGES One expert is guessing that the culture of emojis — how to use them, as well as practical technology limitation­s — is what keeps older adults from using them in messages.

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