For young children, emoji can aid inclusion in aspects of society previously closed to them, such as active participation in increasing knowledge of childhood well-being, and being heard in educational and care settings.
Emoji can also support children's learning in areas of health, well-being, safety and diversity.
These are key aspects of supporting children in becoming knowledgeable, confident and informed citizens, essential aspects of high-quality education.
Emoji are everywhere
Even if you haven't used one yourself lately, you don't have to look far in this age of mobile communication and social media to find an example of a word, feeling or emotion communicated via an emoji.
Emoji are two dimensional pictorial representations of everyday aspects of life.
They are the 21st century's successor to the emoticon, a shorthand facial expression using keyboard keys that came into being with the advent of typewriters and the modern day computer.
- Happy emoticon :-)
- Sad emoticon :-(
Originally from Japan, emoji have become a form for international language, having embedded themselves in cultural and language use across the globe.
The 2017 emoji list is now finalised, and 69 new items are expected to be available for use on devices later this year.
A help or a hindrance to communication
The question of whether emoji bring value to language and communication is a pertinent one.
Potential exists for miscommunication about the meaning of an emoji, as people can interpret similar or even the same emoji in different ways.
This is an issue which can be multiplied across differing platforms — Android to iOS for example.
The use of particular emoji can also change over time to include meanings beyond their original intention.
Interpretation issues aside, the question of whether there is value in the inclusion of pictorial symbols as part or instead of written language is an interesting one.
While many people see emoji as a relatively new phenomenon, in reality the use of symbols to convey meaning is one of the most basic institutions in the evolution of human language and shared knowledge.
It is the oldest form of literacy.
The field of semiotic theory has long recognised the importance and value of symbol systems as part of communication.
Emoji, the latest iteration, are no different.
Increasingly, research into the use of digital symbols such as emoji has revealed their usefulness in communicating with patients in medical settings and the distribution of health information and in sustaining interpersonal relationships.
They really help make sure that you don't get into any trouble.
Hearing children's voices with emoji
Recently, we used emoji as a tool to engage young children in child well-being research.
Our study piloted the use of emoji with 78 preschool children to investigate how children understand and experience well-being.
We sought to challenge the almost complete absence of young children's voices within child well-being research.
In this study, the more neutral the emoji face (see graphic below), the more it generated ideas, discussion and debate.
This presented the young children with the most opportunities to assert their understanding and experiences of well-being.
Young children's perspectives are often disregarded in the research process, as research methods usually privilege the written word (such as surveys and questionnaires) and have relied on adults such as parents, teachers, or health practitioners speaking for children.
Young children are excluded due to their pre-literate status.
Given the current focus on digital literacies within the Australian national curriculum, however, and the continued recognition of the need to include children's perspectives in our knowledge about children and childhood, emoji can be a valuable tool.
There is ongoing research into the use of emoji in schools and early childhood settings in South Australia, and their use in supporting children who are starting school to have an opportunity to communicate and explore their emotions.
As for the soon-to-be released 2017 emoji, only time will tell how these new representations of everyday life are co-opted into everyday communication.
But given their focus on representing diversity in gender, sexuality, ethnicity and culture, the new emoji certainly offer opportunities for new conversations.
They may also provide opportunities for young children and indeed people of all ages to engage with and have access to a living language that is representative of them and inclusive of all in ways that words cannot always as easily offer.
Jennifer Fane is an associate lecturer in health and early childhood education at Flinders University. She has a diverse teaching background with particular interests in health education and inter-professional collaborations to support health and wellbeing.
Originally published in The Conversation