Lure of social media monster

Lure of social media monster Sarah Young / 18 August 2013 Internet and social media use by Arab youth continues to grow at an exponential rate. So how — if at all — is this affecting their society and traditional values about family and friends, marriage and religion? Speaking to youth in Dubai, many feel the Internet is making them more connected, and better informed — but they are not all sure it is changing traditional values as quickly as some might expect. The Arab Social Media report published in June this year showed social media use continuing to grow in the region. While the amount of new users joining Facebook in the UAE slowed slightly, Twitter users had grown by 52 per cent to more than 400,000, accounting for 11 per cent of Twitter activity in the region, and making the country the third most active country behind Saudi Arabia and Egypt, despite the relatively small size and population. A report authored by consultancy firm Booz Allen late last year, Understanding the Arab Digital Generation, highlighted the effect this was having on the changing face of young Arab society, and traditional ideas about relationships and religion. The survey found youth had less direct personal contact with family and friends, with 44 per cent spending more time communicating online instead. One in two surveyed believed parents were unable to keep up with the younger generation in terms of technology, and traditional values were becoming more diluted thanks to the Internet. The changing face of communication Dubai-born Shaymaa Abuquta told Khaleej Times that while she definitely spent less time on face-to-face communication, social media and the internet had improved her friendships — particularly with friends abroad. “I communicate with them more (online) but I think it’s bringing us closer. It depends on how people use the Internet I guess. Those people who go out for dinner with friends say, and spend all their time on their phone — then yes, they are more isolated rather than connected. But for me, I feel it brings me closer to people.” Dubai resident Maimoona Bawazier said she also found social media a great way to reconnect with old school friends, and believed it had widened her social connections rather than isolated her. Dubai accountant Shahroz Ali, 20, spends about five or six hours on the Internet on his days off, and two hours during working days — mostly on Twitter. “It’s interesting and a nice way to pass the time. “(But) to be very frank, for me, it is keeping me away from family talks. Even if we are sitting in the same room we don’t talk to each other — instead we remain busy with our mobiles or iPads. But this is the case with the family only, with friends (the Internet) keeps me more closer, and gives me a chance to increase my friends list.” Sharjah resident Hamideh Ranjibar, 25, said she believed the rate of face-to-face communication had decreased dramatically and the internet was directly influencing culture, and making traditional beliefs less dominant, given the vast social networks and interaction with members of other cultures. She preferred now to chat online with friends, rather than meet them at a coffee shop or their house.   A new way to tie the knot The report also looked at changing perceptions on marriage. About half of the UAE respondents had an arranged marriage, but when those unmarried were asked what sort of marriage they would prefer, less than a third said they would like an arranged marriage. It also showed people were becoming more open to researching, or even finding, their partner online, with 44 per cent of GCC respondents approving of males doing this, and 41 per cent approving of females. Abuquta said that while she had not met a partner online, her peers were more open to the possibility now. “I know so many people who met each other on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. It is changing. Before, people used to think only desperate people used the Internet…but not now. The Internet doesn’t mean you haven’t got a life…it’s where the community is now, and you have to be part of that community.” However, she did not believe the Internet was causing an immediate, dramatic shift away from traditional marriages. “I think for those people who are already open-minded, the Internet will make them even more open-minded. But those who are used to arranged marriages…they will not change their mind so quickly.” Ali said he knew of many people who had met online, and the Internet had to some extent changed his perception on traditional marriages. “I’ve got to learn so much about different people through social media…(it shows you) there is a larger picture (from) which you learn different opinions. That sometimes proves helpful to form an idea about things.”  He and the majority of his friends expected to choose who they would marry, which was a slight change from the past, he said. Ranjibar said she believed social media was reducing the number of arranged marriages. “There is more interaction…and individuals have more options to build a relationship, therefore they prefer to follow their own criteria for marriage rather than old beliefs…consequently the traditional type of marriage is going to abolish and you might just find it in small towns.” However, she did not approve of meeting online as she felt the interactions were not real, and people sometimes pretended to be something else. According to the report, religious belief was also influenced by the Internet, unlike the rest of the world, where it had not appeared to have a significant impact. Many from the GCC — 74 per cent — claimed the internet was bringing them closer to their faith, while 26 per cent believed it took them further away. Nearly all religious figures now had blogs, and many respondents said the Internet helped them find answers to questions, look for opinions and communicate with religious leaders, the report said. Ali said he did use the Internet occasionally to convey his “religious feelings and take part in different debates and forums.” “I like to listen to (Islamic preacher) Dr Zakir Naik because every time he speaks he convinces his listeners with proofs.” Overall, social media had changed his life for the better, he said. “I’ve learnt the basic law of diversity…and for the public relations purposes this is the best tool. And yes I do have a choice (over how much I use it) — it doesn’t control me.” Bawazier agreed. Social media kept her up to date with news and events here and around the world, along with fashion and make-up trends. “We are just more connected with the world now, it’s good.” However, Ranjibar said she still felt it was important to maintain a healthy balance when using social media, and not lose sight of core values such as being together. –   Taylor Scott International

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