Abused Emojis May Send the Wrong Message

spotlightAnother fabulous post from AmeriCorps member, Evan Abramsky!

It’s unfathomably difficult for victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse to express to friends and family just what it is that they are experiencing. In an attempt to make communication of the situation and the feelings it brings easier for victims, Swedish charity BRIS (“Children’s Rights in Society”), has created the “Abused Emojis” app for iOS devices. The app contains 15 abused emojis that share the style and aesthetics of the emojis that come preinstalled with iOS, but with far more tragic representations. For example, one familiar, bright-yellow “distressed” emoji features a visible bruise around it’s left eye. Another depicts an angry father with a glass of red wine looming over a subordinate young girl.

While the idea behind the app is certainly well-intentioned, I have several apprehensions in regards to the BRIS’s Abused Emojis. To begin, in regards to compatibility, the app is only available for Apple’s iOS devices (including the iPhone and iPad). According to data collected by Forrester Research, the average household income of iPhone users is approximately $105,200 per year. Users of Google’s Android mobile operating system, for which the Abused Emojis are not available, have an average household income of $89,300–almost $16,000 less, on average. There is a significant amount of research indicating that, while domestic violence is present in every level of socioeconomic class, higher income households tend to have lower rates of domestic violence. By limiting the availability of the Abused Emojis app to iOS users only, BRIS is missing the opportunity to assist a sizeable portion of mobile users who may be at a higher risk of domestic violence.

Another issue I have with the Abused Emojis app regards the nature of emojis as a communication tool. While they are certainly helpful in communicating emotion in casual, whimsical conversation, it’s unclear how appropriate of a tool emojis are in communicating far more serious circumstances, like suicidal thoughts, self-harm, alcoholism, and child abuse, all of which are depicted in the Abused Emojis app.

Finally, Abused Emojis runs the risk of making depictions of domestic violence into comical relief for those who may wish to misuse the app. One particular abused emoji that itself has already shown signs of being abused for “comedic” purposes depicts a sad boy with the infamous poop emoji on his head. While the emoji was likely intended to symbolize a serious feeling of low self-worth which often accompanies victims of domestic violence, it’s use of the whimsical poop emoji gives the emoji a less than serious character. Already, users of the Abused Emoji app have taken up using the offending emoji for a host of imaginative situations that fail to capture the truly down-trodden feelings that accompany consistent rounds of battery.

The Abused Emoji app is by no means a terrible idea, however. There is no debate: the representations are mostly unsettling and certainly are effective at portraying different forms of domestic violence. But will they truly make it easier for victims to speak up, as they are intended? This author is skeptical–at least when it comes to the communication of situations and emotions to friends and family. It is more likely that the Abused Emoji app could find use in a clinical or professional setting, perhaps in assisting victims in expressing to their psychologist or therapist what they have experienced or in notifying a social worker of violent incidents when they occur. However, in the context of a conversation amongst friends or family, I doubt the Abused Emoji app could ever replace the thoughts and feelings a victim would need to communicate when discussing their experience with domestic violence, sexual violence, or child abuse. Whether or not the app finds a use between social workers and victims of domestic violence, only time will tell…

– Evan Abramsky