Most parents know that LOL means Laughing Out Loud. You may even know that 420 refers to marijuana. But you may not know that 53X means sex. That worries Brian Bason, CEO at Bark, a new monitoring app. Their website includes a list of popular texting slang terms. For $9 a month, they promise to alert parents when kids text something risky.
Of course, slang is nothing new. Parents have been scrambling to keep up with it for generations. Using freshly minted words that adults won’t understand appeals to kids for two reasons. First, it helps kids establish and reinforce a social identity. People who understand the same secret language are likely to be part of the same tribe. Slang establishes an in group that understands and an out group that seems hopelessly out of touch.
Second, slang allows kids to fly under adult radar, talking about things that might be forbidden if the adults could translate what they were saying. Siblings often develop this kind of secret language—winks and whispers and even special words that let them communicate about things that Mom and Dad might not appreciate.
Messaging, of course, has added a new dimension to all of this. Keyboards are tiny. Attention spans are short. Acronyms and emojis make it possible to crowd a lot of information into a small space. As a result, messages have become more and more cryptic and harder for parents to decipher.
Much of the new slang being used online is harmless and even creative. Some of the better acronyms enter the language. Pretty much everyone knows about FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), IRL (In Real Life) and BRB (Be Right Back). Other very useful acronyms include JSYK (Just So You Know), SMH (Shaking My Head), TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) and YOLO (You Only Live Once).
Still, parents need to be alert. Kids can get into trouble with texting, and the kinds of speech that would be unacceptable IRL should also be off limits in text. In particular, parents will want to monitor in these areas:
Sex. Most teens seem to have gotten the message that sending nude photos isn’t a good idea. That doesn’t mean teens aren’t texting about 53X. Even emojis may have a double meaning—an eggplant can stand in for male genitals; a peach may refer to someone’s backside. It’s perfectly natural, of course, for young people to take an interest in sex, but parents need to chaperone, watching for behavior that is too adult or partners who may be predatory.
Substances. Slang has always been part of drug and alcohol culture. Using coded language is a way to evade legal authorities as well as parents. Keeping up with the current terminology isn’t easy, especially since it often varies from place to place. Talk to other parents and even school counselors who often know the latest lingo. And remember that drug terms sometimes have more than one meaning. Dabbing, for example, is both a dance craze and a way to use cannabis. Lit can mean getting high or simply having a good time.
Hate. Texting and social media are often used to bully and abuse other people because of their gender, race, ethnic origin or disabilities. Be clear with your child. A slur is a slur, and you won’t tolerate abusive language in any setting.
Bad Language. If you don’t want your child to say the F word, you will probably want to discourage the use of acronyms like WTF or AF. Even NSS may not be acceptable.
The best way to know what an acronym means is to ask the child who used it. The security company McAfee also produces a list of common terms, conveniently subdivided into categories for drugs, sex and bullying. Wiktionary also has a long list of acronyms in an appendix.
Another way to educate yourself is to visit databases that try to keep up with slang as it’s created. Here are several of the most complete collections:
- SlangIt.comis a family friendly website. (They also have free apps for iphone and Android.) When you enter a slang term, you get a clean and accurate definition. They also have a daily quiz question that might be a conversation starter at the dinner table.
- Noslang.com has been keeping track of net slang since 2005. They offer a text slang translator and a reverse translator that turns English phrases into acronyms. In their Articles section, there’s a helpful essay called “What Every Parent Should Know.”
- InternetSlang.com also allows parents to look up acronyms. Their Trending Terms section helps parents zero in on current terminology.
- AcronymsAndSlang.com has an enormous list of acronyms, organized into categories. With over 20,000 entries in the Internet category, they are likely to supply an explanation for almost any acronym.
- UrbanDictionary.com also has a very complete list of slang of all kinds. The definitions are crowd-sourced, so they are generally irreverent and often obscene. The site is not suitable for children, but may be useful to parents because it’s regularly updated by its users.
Of course, trying to keep up with adolescent slang is like playing Whack-a-mole. As soon as a term is widely understood by adults, it loses its value for kids, and they will move on. That’s why parents have to reinforce the idea that kids shouldn’t say anything online that they wouldn’t say IRL (in real life). With that in mind, you might also want to introduce a conscience-stimulating acronym of your own—WWGmaS (What Would Grandma Say?). af
Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about families and technology for more than 20 years.