A Quotation Mark Question

I've noticed recently that many of my students use single quotation marks to indicate irony. For instance, they'll write:
He had such 'beautiful' hair I couldn't help but say, "Hey, Joe, is your barber a sadist?"
I wonder if this is a development from email or IM or something, because it's easier to put single quotes around a bit of text than to italicize it. It's an interesting differentiation, too, because traditionally (in U.S. usage) double quotes have been able to indicate either a quotation or irony (scare quotes), which can be annoying, of course, but it seems to be a generally accepted usage. I actually kind of like the newer usage; there's a certain cleanliness to it.

What do people in countries where single quotes are the norm do? Does the phenomenon I'm describing even exist outside the U.S.? Does it exist outside my classroom? (Actually, I've seen one blogger do it, so I'm pretty sure it does.) Is this is usage with a long history that I'm oblivious to?

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