Translating teen tech speak

As a youth communicator for many years, I walked a fine line every time I stood in front of an audience of teenagers. If I could casually drop in a trendy word during my talk, I got respect (I may have even been ‘skux’), but if that word was out of fashion, I lost credibility instantly.

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Linguists say that we are witnessing the fastest evolution in language they have ever studied. We have rapidly progressed from emails to text messages to Snapchat and beyond. 140 characters was once seen as a limitation to language, but it is amazing how quickly humans can adapt to new technology and push its limits. Many teens have abandoned words all together and are choosing to communicate through photo-sharing apps like Instagram and Snapchat, as well as modern day hieroglyphics – also known as ‘emojis’. This rapid adoption of new technology can leave us feeling like we’re staring at our kids across a great divide.


But don’t worry, we have your back. All you need are the basics to get you connecting with your teen in their digital world. First, you’ll need to know what a hashtag is. And next, you’ll need to understand how to decode some of the cryptic acronyms teens use on social media.

Hashtags look like this – #. You may be thinking – “I know that symbol, I use it when I call the bank and need to ‘return to the main menu’.” But in the social media world, hashtags are a lot more powerful than that, and are a regular sight on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A hashtag turns any word or group of words that directly follow it into a searchable link. For example, if your teen takes a photo and posts it on Instagram with the hashtag #bae (another word for ‘babe’), that photo will be grouped with all the other posts and photos with the same hashtag. If someone clicks on #bae, they’d come across your teen’s photo.


Knowing some hashtags and acronyms will give you street cred with your teen, but they will also help you decipher whether they are in trouble or in need of one of those ‘I’m concerned about you’ conversations. Here are a few to get to you started.

  • IMO/IMHO: ‘In my opinion’ / ‘in my humble opinion’
  • IRL: ‘In real life’ – worrying if your child is using it in the context of meeting someone they have met online, i.e. MIRL (‘meet in real life’) or LMIRL (‘let’s meet in real life’).
  • POS or MOS: ‘Parents over shoulder’ or ‘mum over shoulder’
  • #ICant, #ICantEven #Crying #ImCrying and #Dead: These hashtags are all a little bit misleading, but once you get one you can pretty much understand them all. Basically, they mean that something is hilarious, or very shocking.
  • #ImOut: This is a way of relaying the fact that a user thinks something someone has posted is so insane, ridiculous, awesome or offensive that the other person ‘wins’.

Every parent of a teen knows that these years can be notorious for difficult or limited communication. So sometimes you’ll need to go where they are, and communicate in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Perhaps you’ll need to sign up to Instagram or Snapchat and use words like ‘on fleek’ (trendy) or ‘lit’ (very good) – “This PTA meeting is lit.” Who knows, you might find it opens up new lines of communication and you may even find you enjoy it.

Thankfully, understanding every syllable your teen says is not essential to raising a well-adjusted and functional child. And remember that although technology is new, some old-fashioned ideas will never change. Talking to your kids about your expectations regarding how they communicate is important. Honesty, courtesy, and respect will never grow old.

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