The smiley face, heart, praying hands and other “emoji” have become the way millions of Internet users playfully punctuate their texts, posts and messages, but for one middle schooler the icons brought the police to her door.

The 12-year-old from Fairfax, Va., has been charged with threatening her school after police said she posted a message on Instagram in December laden with gun, bomb and knife emojis. It read in part:


As emoji and their relative the emoticon have rocketed from web slang to the unofficial language of the Internet age, the case is one of a growing number where authorities contend the cartoonish symbols have been used to stalk, harass, threaten or defame people. And that has left the police and courts wrestling with how to treat a newly popular idiom many still dimly grasp.

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