Cracking the code of teens’ IM slang

For parents of teens, three-letter acronyms like PAW, MOS and CD9 might be more disturbing than the old four-letter words.

Call it a sign of the times. Most teens are like a duck to water when it comes to instant messaging and mobile text messaging, where acronyms and slang can be used to keep outsiders guessing. But for parents who likely aren’t as comfortable with IM slang: PAW means “parents are watching”; MOS is “mom over shoulder”; and CD9 means “Code 9” for when parents are around. Research shows that one in four kids use such lingo daily to warn their chat friends of prying eyes.

Despite the secrecy, Internet-savvy parents have more and more tools to decipher the code, causing a kind of chat-and-mouse game. Befuddled by lingo seen through monitoring software or over their kids’ shoulder–like “wu” for what’s up, or “plox” for please–parents are turning to sites like NoSlang.com, Teenangels.org and Teenchatdecoder.com for their acronym dictionaries–much to teens’ chagrin.

“A lot of teens get mad that I’m cluing parents into their little warnings.”

–Ryan Jones, who runs NoSlang.com

“I get praise from parents and hatred from teenagers,” said Ryan Jones, a 25-year-old engineer from Detroit who runs NoSlang.com in his spare time. He recently updated the site with thousands of new acronyms and downloadable plug-ins for Firefox and Internet Explorer.

“A lot of teens get mad that I’m cluing parents into their little warnings.”

Indeed, the teenage years are often about drawing lines to separate from parents and define social circles. From Pig Latin to hand signs, kids have been creating their own languages for years, and instant messaging is just the latest way to do it.

In some ways, the shorthand is used for more than keeping parents in the dark. Watch a teen online and you’ll understand: the average teen juggles between three and five chat sessions at any one time, researchers say. That socializing often coincides with online research, homework or listening to music. And on the cell phone, the character limit of text messages (160 characters) demands brevity.

“They’re finding ways of making shortcuts and (creating) a sense of conversation,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew American and Internet Life.

Of course, acronyms are not teen-only territory. Programmers and gamers, among others, have long had their own specialized lingo. And anyone who’s familiar with IM and e-mail knows terms like OMG, LOL and WTF.

But when it comes to teens, industry watchers say creativity is everything.

Acronym chart

Teen girls, for example, were the lead adopters of text messaging in Japan. Now that it is a nearly ubiquitous activity in the culture, teen girls have raised the bar. According to Mimi Ito, a research scientist at USC’s Annenberg Center of Communication who studies teens and technology, Japanese teen girls have more recently created their own special language for texting called “Gal Go,” for girls’ language. It’s a complex communication system comprised of creative combinations of Japanese characters, which number into the hundreds.

“You see that a lot with subcultures,” Ito said. “Young people develop their own language to differentiate themselves from mainstream culture.”

Now that sites like Teenchatdecoder.com boast almost 6,000 acronyms that parents can look up online, kids have had to adapt their terms to avoid detection. Jones said he’s seeing kids use CD8 or “Code 8” instead of “Code 9” to warn of parents around, for example.

Atalya Stachel, a 17-year-old from Berkeley, Calif., said she’s been using AIM since she was an eighth grader four years ago, and she’s been text messaging since her freshman year. She and her friends use many of the common acronyms like LOL, BRB and TTYL (talk to you later). If they want secrecy in real life, they’ll talk a kind of gibberish that requires inserting an “ittica” between every word. With chat or text messaging, they’ll make up their own words if they want extreme privacy.

“Sometimes, instead of saying the actual thing, like drugs, when you don’t want to say the word ‘weed,’ you’ll say, ‘Did you get the orange juice I made for you?'” said Stachel. “You say that different word and your friends would know.”

Stachel added: “A lot of times you would make it up on the spot and your friends know you so well that they would know what you’re saying.”

Indeed, teen trends change fast, and that makes it harder for parents to keep pace. According to a Pew study, 52 percent of teens prefer to communicate with friends via landline, versus 24 percent who prefer instant messaging and 12 percent who like to talk via cell phone best. For quick conversations, however, teens prefer IM or text messaging.

Parry Aftab, the founder of the Web site Teenangels.org, a program to train teens on online safety, said parents who are using monitoring software to check on their kids often have no idea what their kids are saying and a translator can help. In addition to the parent-warning acronyms, experts say parents should watch out for short codes including MIRL, for “meet in real life”; E or X, for the drug Ecstasy; and NIFOC, for “naked in front of the computer.”

Steve Lanich, a parent of 15- and 17-year-old sons in Pennsylvania, said he reads over his kids’ shoulders occasionally while they’re chatting with friends. When he doesn’t understand the language or acronyms they’re using, he’ll either ask them what they’re saying, or he’ll be more covert.

“I understand most of it but there are some questionable entries,” Lanich said. “Sometimes I try to be sneaky and go (online)” to sites including AOL’s AIM acronym dictionary or another acronym finder.

Concerned adults can take heart in the fact that kids seem to grow out of their use of acronyms and slang in IM and text messaging once they’re college-age. Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in Washington D.C., has studied teens’ communications via computers for several years, and found that by the time students get to college, they’re not so enamored of abbreviations and acronyms in IM and text messaging.

“In the same way, that one week it’s cool to put green or blue streaks in your hair, everything has to be done just so you don’t stick out,” said Baron.

Sure, she said, college-age kids use “LOL” like they would use the word “goodbye” to acknowledge the end or a change of a conversation, and BTW, as the word “like.” Those abbreviations will likely remain in the lexicon, she said. But because college kids are using their computers for writing papers, sending e-mail to professors, and so on, it becomes more difficult to change modes to a coded language for IM or text messaging.

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“By the time kids get to college, they see IM as a convenient way to communicate,” she said.

Stachel has already tired of online slang. She said she used to ignore periods in sentences or capitalizing words she wrote in IM or text messages. She would also exchange words like “you” for “u” and “are” for “R.” But she says she’s grown out of those shortcuts because she wants to hone her spelling skills and “get good at typing” for college.

But among her peer group, popular acronyms have seeped into real-world conversations. Stachel said some of her girlfriends say “OMG” or “BRB” in conversation or “TTYL” before leaving the group. Other “really annoying people” will use such acronyms more often, she said.

Such usage can be ill-timed, however. Candice Kelsey, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, said one of her ninth grade boys blurted out “OMFG” in class after reading an essay assignment on the chalkboard. When Kelsey asked for his apology, the teen argued that he didn’t say a bad word, but rather just four random letters.

“I offered to send him to the HOS (head of school), another random string of letters,” Kelsey said, but “eventually he apologized.”