Digital Media and Emotional Development

In August 2018, Stanford announced a successful trial of an autism therapy that used Google Glass to teach children with autism about facial expressions. The device was programmed to see what the child saw and record this field of vision. The Glass shared this footage with a linked app, which then identified the most likely displayed facial expression. Then, the facial expression would either be listed on the app or spoken aloud to the child.

After one to three months of use, children in the therapy trial displayed better eye contact, related better to others and showed a decrease (improvement) on an SRS-2 score. These improvements came through several functions of the Glass. Children could “free play,” which meant they received audio cues during daily interactions with others. They could also play two games that gave players time to either identify emotions based on prepared images or give clues about the emotion they want someone to feel.

This study shows that digital engagement can interact with children in dynamic, expressive ways to develop and share emotions. While these students specifically used an interpersonal computing system, similar benefits exist from other targeted use of digital media, such as emojis. When children play through games with relatable characters or use learning software for coding that employ imagination capturing personas, children respond to them in new ways, exercising different parts of their brain.

Emojis and Emotions

Emojis have an ability to both create emotions, as affective devices, and represent emotions. Because the digital world is abstract and void of facial expressions or body language cues, much of the feeling between two people can be lost during textual conversations. Unless someone takes the time to constantly, verbally signal a feeling, which is a tedious process to write and read, then emotions can be lost in a digital conversation. Thus, emojis are an emotional shorthand for social cues that ultimately affect our emotional reception and development.

As far as the representation of emotions go, emojis can be manipulated however the user wants, which enables strong emotional development. According to a UK study titled, “Repurposing Emojis for Personalized Communication: Why [pizza slice] means ‘I love you’,” “… some emoji are instead used to convey intimate and personal sentiments that, for many reasons, their users cannot express in words.” One of the “many reasons” words are limited in this way is their permanence of meaning. We can easily re-label objects as our definition of them changes, but it is much harder to change the root meaning of a word. If one says rose, usually one will think of the blossoms or other affiliated representations.

Thus, the specificity of language and words can sometimes limit our emotional breadth and intimacy. However, when two friends or a community can share a single image to convey love, that image carries with it a plurality of emotions that grow over time. Initially, it may be affection, a product of a mutual appreciation of pizza. As the emoji is shared repeatedly, it carries intimacy, from being in on the secret of its meaning, to nostalgia from that first discussion of appreciation. It is a thousand words wrapped up in a single, digital slice.

Teaching Kids Emotions with Emojis

While emotional representation with emojis could be argued as stunting verbal expression of feelings, the two forms are not mutually exclusive skills. One can be excellent at telling someone how they feel while equally excellent at showing how they feel. Depending on the audience or situation, different communication transmissions are equally valid.

Therefore, incorporating emojis into early childhood education and learning experiences can benefit emotional development and expression in children. As seen in the case of the Stanford Google Glass study, digital media, like emojis, are great tools for childhood development. Emojis can be incorporated in the same way to teach facial expressions, visual symbols of feelings and other important social skills.

However, beyond teaching children how to use emotion, emojis can also be used to elicit emotional and rational responses from children. In a 2016 Washington Post article titled, “Can emojis help kids make better food choices,” author Megan McDonough reveals the results of a surprising health study: when reading labels identified with emojis [happy = healthy, sad = sugary], 83% of participating children chose a healthy option, significant increase from the control.

By using emojis in the classroom, teachers can convey practical lessons more effectively until their students have bigger vocabularies, stronger reading comprehension and more experience in the world. Children will respond to these affective images because of their previous, non-classroom, context with the communication system.

Onomojis: for good feelings

When Onomojis appear in games, in books and in other interactive experiences, children will be able to see what sound looks like, but more importantly, they can see what it feels like. As they gain this ability in an engaging way, we hope they can pair essential language skills with important emotional development.