Socializing on the Internet: Case Study of Internet Use among University Students in the United Arab Emirates

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper analyzes socializing on the Internet and attitudes towards the Internet as a medium of social interaction among university students in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It stems from a larger research project conducted at seven different institutions of higher education in the Abu Dhabi Emirate between 2007-2009 through anonymous questionnaires. A total of 571 students (353 female, 183 male) participated in the survey. In this paper we present only a small portion of the data and focus on (1) the intensity and frequency of Internet use; (2) identity and gender hiding in the virtual environment; (3) meeting internet acquaintances in real life; and (4) attitudes towards the Internet as a medium for social interaction. Responses were cross-analyzed in light of the participants' gender, age, and subjectively-perceived social status. Essentially, we argue that Emirati students dedicate a substantial amount of time and turn frequently to activities related to socializing on the Internet. Yet we have found significant differences in Internet usage and attitudes towards socializing on the Internet along the lines of gender, age, and social status. Generally, respondents tend to hide their identity more than their gender in the virtual environment; yet, women tend to hide both their identity and gender significantly more than men. More than half of the respondents think that the Internet is a medium through which they can communicate without being subjected to prejudice; yet men tend to be more positive than women about being treated differently on the Internet when people do know their gender. Finally, respondents who perceive themselves as having a higher social status tend to hide their identity less and are less distrustful of relationships formed via the Internet than are their counterparts, who perceive themselves as having middle class social status. Overall, the findings presented in this paper suggest that although the Internet can largely act as a vehicle for resisting social exclusion and gender segregation, it can also simultaneously serve as a mechanism for reinforcing pre-existing norms within newly-networked traditional communities. On a more general level, this paper aims to contribute to our understanding of global patterns of Internet usage and the complex interplay between technology, culture and identity.

Keywords

socializing, social networks, United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, internet usage, virtual identity, gender aspects, computer-mediated communication

Introduction

This paper analyzes socializing via the Internet and attitudes towards the Internet as a medium for social interaction among university students in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It stems from a larger research project conducted at seven different institutions of higher education in the Abu Dhabi Emirate between 2007-2009. In this paper, we present only a small portion of the data and focus on (1) the intensity and frequency of Internet use; (2) identity and gender hiding in the virtual environment; (3) meeting internet acquaintances in real life; and (4) attitudes towards the Internet as a medium for social interaction. By doing so, we cross-analyze how Internet usage and attitudes towards the Internet change according to a respondent's age, gender, and subjectively-perceived social status. Essentially the findings presented in this paper suggest that although the Internet can largely act as a vehicle for resisting social exclusion and gender segregation, it can also simultaneously serve as a mechanism for reinforcing pre-existing norms within newly-networked traditional communities.

In the 1990s Internet penetration started to spread throughout the Arab world. Although the region generally suffered from "being on the low end of the digital divide" (Abdulla, 2007, p. 35), facing many challenges, including a lack of human and economic IT resources, funds for IT research and development, and solid telecommunications infrastructure, this situation is rapidly changing, since many Arab countries are currently striving hard to increase Internet penetration rates. …