UAE and social media: dangers out in the open
As the biggest user of Facebook in the region and with a population hungry for new technologies, is it possible to manage a traditionally private culture in an increasingly open world?
Every week new smartphone applications enable people to "share" more of themselves with friends and family, and more worryingly, total strangers.
Fadi Salem, director of the governance and innovation programme at the Dubai School of Government (DSG), says any emergence of new technology usually "fulfils a social need" that is not being met otherwise.
"This is what we have seen in social media," he says. "It started with people wanting to interact for the social need of networking with others. Then it shifted to another need during the last two years, of the need to be politically active.
"The whole thing fulfils something that's missing."
And, as of the end of June last year there were more than 45 million Facebook users across the Arab world, approximately triple the 2010 figure.
According to the most recent Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government, GCC countries dominate the top five Arab Facebook users as a percentage of the population, with the UAE topping the list.
But as it stands there are no studies into the use of other lesser-known online communication applications and programmes beyond Twitter and Facebook.
"In general, there is a lack of research into the issues that are progressing very fast, especially with the boom of media in general and how this impacts and changes behaviours and cultures," said Mr Salem.
"The most vulnerable in a society are usually the young groups, and they are jumping on this phenomena and there's no policy, awareness or education that's catching up with this growth.
"When these things aren't studied carefully, what happens is one of two things. Either they are ignored, or they sometimes prompt an alarmist approach to it like 'let's block it'.
"It takes one of two extremes if it's not studied seriously by organisations that understand what they are doing so I'd like to see more research on it."
The Ministry of Interior's Child Protection Centre provides some information for parents, children and teenagers on how to stay safe online.
It recommends parental controls on the television, computers, laptops, games consoles and mobile phones but warns that it is not about "locking and blocking".
With regards to their children, the information also states that parents "should know what they share, who they talk to and how long they spend online. It is important to discuss boundaries at a young age to develop the tools and skills children to keep themselves safe."
The Ministry's website includes detailed instructions on how to apply parental controls to a child's BlackBerry - including an option to block BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).
BBM is a free messaging service which identifies users using a PIN rather than a phone number. It is incredibly popular among children and adults alike.
There are even Facebook groups set up for UAE-based users to share their PINs, with the majority of messages from men asking for "girls only". Very few women appear to post on the sites.
"The education really needs to be increased, especially about meeting strangers. And we shouldn't just talk about it in general, we should go deeper," says 20-year-old Saeed, an Emirati from Abu Dhabi.
"Some parents educate their children about the dangers but more of the parents don't know what their kids are doing or who they might be meeting. They don't know of the problems.
"Technology is coming on a lot and we need the education to balance it."
The number of blackmail cases involving girls who upload photographs of themselves to the internet seems to be on the rise, according to Dubai Police. In 2010 there were 73 registered cases, a 17 per cent leap from the previous year. When the figures were released, authorities called on girls not to save any personal photographs online, including in their private email accounts.
Aside from blackmail, a case that appeared in the Abu Dhabi courts earlier this year demonstrated just how dangerous so-called online relationships can be.
The Abu Dhabi Criminal Court heard how a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a man she "met" on Facebook when she went to meet him in person in Dubai. She then claimed to have been raped again by another man she knew through Facebook. The men deny the charges and the case is still ongoing.
But in a conservative society, even much more innocent meetings can end in trouble.
"It's those with very strict parents who have rules about going out and meeting someone," says Saeed. "It's these people that meet up with people they've met online.
"I've heard of a lot of cases of blackmail, even if nothing bad happens. Just meeting the person is bad enough for them to be blackmailed. I have heard a lot of stories about this."
Amna Al Muttawa, a case worker at the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, says parents need to tread a fine line between being controlling and caring when it comes to their children's activities online.
The Foundation, which houses women and children who have escaped difficult or dangerous situations at home, does a lot of outreach work in schools to educate young people about how to remain safe while using new technologies.
"We try as much as we can to educate the children on their level, this is so important," she says. "Parents should teach their children what is going on around them, and within their own culture. They should learn what is acceptable behaviour within their culture and outside it.
"It's good to raise a child that is accepting his culture but able to accommodate the different lifestyles out there.
"I have seen that the problems are not from online, but they lie in the way that we raise our children."
Previous estimates have revealed there are around 2.4 mobile phone lines for every person living in the UAE. It is not uncommon for a young person to have a phone line exclusively for their family and another for their friends, making it harder for parents to monitor their child's activity.
"Parents really need to ask if it is necessary for the child to own more than one phone, what do they need them for?" Ms Al Muttawa says.
"Parents need to be cautious because it's very different now to 20 years ago. [Young people] are exposed to much more now.
"There is a lack of education about how to use these things, but there are some very good parents, you can't generalise."
Twenty two-year-old Emirati, Hamda, says a lot of the online interactions - particularly between girls and boys - is linked to the segregation of the sexes and that it is only natural for teenagers in particular to be inquisitive about the unknown.
"Social media is misused, and it's overused," she says. "Facebook was to get in contact with friends that weren't in the same area. Now people use it to meet strangers and they send messages and pictures. They don't have enough knowledge of how to use it properly.
"I went to an international school with girls and boys so when I grew up and worked with men, I didn't find it very difficult to engage with them. People with old-school parents that keep their daughters in a school full or girls, or vice versa, they don't know how to interact with each other because they don't do it every day, so they go online instead."
A solution, she says, would be to create more mixed schools so young people are less inquisitive about the opposite sex and don't turn to the internet to find answers.
"Parents and the education system should make the school mixed. It would prevent a lot of stuff. It won't be easy but some parents are more accepting now."
Updated: March 26, 2013 04:00 AM