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Older adults often understand emojis, but hesitate to use them

Ever wonder why your grandma sends you texts filled with hearts and flowers, but never a sassy “eyeroll” emoji?  It turns out, there’s more to the story than just a generational disconnect. A recent study from the University of Ottawa reveals that while many older adults understand emojis, they lack the confidence to use them. 

Lower emoji use among older adults

The study investigated how age affects adults’ use of emojis. The researchers studied 240 adults, aged 18 to 80, to see how often they used emojis, how many different emojis they used, and how well they understood them. 

“We found that older users are less likely to use emojis, use fewer emojis, and feel less comfortable in their ability to interpret emojis,” said study lead author Professor Isabelle Boutet.

However, most older adults still grasped the general meaning of emojis, both the basic emotions like happiness or sadness and the context-dependent use of emojis, such as understanding that a wink can indicate sarcasm.

Surprise! The most confusing emoji

Older adults had difficulty understanding certain emojis, especially the “surprise” and “happy” ones. These emojis use subtle facial expressions that may be unfamiliar to older adults who didn’t grow up using emojis as a common form of communication. 

This suggests a difference between generations in how emojis are interpreted, which is important to consider when using emojis to communicate with people of different ages.

Ease of emoji use

Whether someone decides to use new technology often depends on how easy they find it to learn and use. Research suggests that older adults might find emojis more challenging to use than younger people. 

This isn’t just about understanding the meaning of an emoji, but also about finding and choosing the right one when sending messages. For older adults, emojis might seem less user-friendly, making them less enthusiastic or confident in using them compared to younger users. 

Physical challenges

As we age, it’s natural for our eyesight and hand dexterity to decline. This can make it difficult for older adults to see and interact with the small icons on smartphone screens, including emojis. 

Imagine trying to find a tiny smiley face or heart from a sea of other small symbols – it can be challenging if your vision isn’t as sharp or if your fingers don’t move as precisely as they used to. 

Because of this, selecting emojis, which are often chosen from extensive menus on smartphones, can be a daunting task for many older individuals. Consequently, these physical challenges can discourage older adults from using emojis, even if they understand and appreciate the value emojis add to digital conversations. 

Encouraging emoji use among older adults

“This pattern of results leads us to conclude that older users have the motivation and ability to utilize emojis, but they lack the confidence and general technology expertise needed to adapt to this mode of communication,” said Dr. Boutet. 

To bridge this gap, two solutions can be implemented. First, simplifying emoji menus can significantly improve accessibility. This could involve using clear and easily understandable emojis, featuring larger icons, and designing user-friendly navigation for those less comfortable with digital platforms.

Second, offering training programs specifically designed for older adults can equip them with the necessary knowledge. 

These programs, potentially hosted by community centers, could focus on the basics of emoji communication, including choosing appropriate emojis for different contexts and navigating emoji menus on their devices.

Potential benefits of emoji use

Emojis are more than just fun additions to messages; they act as a helpful tool to express emotions, subtle meanings, and expressions that can be easily missed in messages with only text. This is especially important nowadays, as digital communication is becoming increasingly common.

For older adults, learning to use emojis effectively can significantly improve their social interactions and overall well-being

Better communication

Emojis can help older adults express their emotions more clearly and accurately in digital conversations, making these interactions more personal and meaningful. This is particularly helpful for those who find it difficult to type long messages or struggle to convey their tone and emotions through text alone.

Reduced isolation

By being able to participate more fully in digital communication, older adults can feel more connected to their loved ones and communities. This sense of connection is crucial for mental health and can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are common concerns as people age.

Stronger connections across generations

Emojis are like a universal language that people of all ages understand. By learning to use them effectively, older adults can connect better with younger generations, like their grandchildren, and bridge the gap between different ages and technological experiences.

Next time you see your grandmother hesitant to use an emoji, remember, she might just need a little help navigating the exciting world of digital expression.

The study is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior Reports.


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