How One Dentist Is Using Emojis to Better Communicate With Kids

Young girl looking at a mirror after having a routine checkup at the dentist

mihailomilovanovic / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Dental anxiety tends to start in childhood.
  • To better assess childhood dental anxiety, researchers have created an animated emoji scale to assess a patient’s feelings about their appointment.
  • The scale could help young children with limited language skills express themselves to dentists.

Good dental hygiene relies on regular cleanings with a professional. But for 30% of adults, dental anxiety stands in the way.

As we enter National Dental Hygiene Month, one dentist is sharing an approach that could help nip dental anxiety in the bud during childhood. And it relies on emojis.

According to Jyothsna V. Setty, MDS, PhD, a professor of pedodontics and preventive dentistry at the M R Ambedkar Dental College and Hospital in Bangalore, India, early identification and intervention for dental anxiety may be the key to keeping up with dental hygiene in young children. For this reason, she created an animated, emoji-based pain scale to assess children’s anxiety toward dental visits.

Rather than ranking their anxiety on a typical numerical scale, young patients can point to an image that mimics their feelings.

“Often, individuals get confused by a numeric scale—which is avoided in this scale by directly pointing out what the person actually is feeling at that particular moment,” Setty told Verywell in an email. “Younger generations are more attracted towards multimedia. They are using GIFs and emojis and see their family members use it on mobile or other electronic devices and are familiar with it."

The animated scale is easily accessible to young children with limited cognitive or linguistic skills, and can be understood regardless of the patient’s language, according to Setty’s team.

Previous methods of assessing dental anxiety either did not translate across languages or required time-consuming physiological tests, like measuring children’s pulse rates and muscle tension, they added.

The scale need not just be used at an initial dental visit, but to assess a child’s comfort with their provider over time. If aware of their patient’s level of anxiety, providers may be able tailor their approach to ease the child’s comfort level at future visits, including as they transition from pediatric to adult dentistry.

When a child is anxious at the dentist office, they tend to point to an emoticon that correlates with the number “4” or “5,” Setty said. But once they gain confidence, they tend to point to an emoticon that correlates with a lower number, like a “1” or a “2.”

Setty think the scale can be used in adult dentistry or to asses physical pain in other medical practices, too. In fact, a team of researchers in Boston are already evaluating the use of an emoji-based pain scale in a hospital setting.

What This Means For You

Many people experience dental anxiety, which can start in childhood. To asses childhood dental anxiety, researchers are testing an animated emoji scale that can correlate to a person's emotions and anxiety level.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Silveira ER, Cademartori MG, Schuch HS, Armfield JA, Demarco FF. Estimated prevalence of dental fear in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysisJ Dent. 2021;108:103632. doi:10.1016/j.jdent.2021.103632

  2. Setty J, Srinivasan I, Radhakrishna S, Melwani A, DR M. Use of an animated emoji scale as a novel tool for anxiety assessment in childrenJ Dent Anesth Pain Med. 2019;19(4):227. doi:10.17245/jdapm.2019.19.4.227

  3. He S, Renne A, Argandykov D, Convissar D, Lee J. Comparison of an emoji-based visual analog scale with a numeric rating scale for pain assessmentJAMA. 2022;328(2):208-209. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.7489

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.