Seventy per cent of Internet users in the Mena region believe that online activity has disrupted normal social activity to the extent that today's human relationships are now mostly 'virtual', according to a new study.
The study held by top jobs portal Bayt.com in cooperation with research specialists YouGov Siraj also said 70 per cent of UAE's respondents also believe that social activity is being sidelined by virtual contact, with just 15 per cent disagreeing.
Around the rest of the Middle East region, respondents mostly agree - to a greater or lesser extent - that being online is now the main form of social activity, most notably in Oman, Egypt and Bahrain where 76 per cent, 74 per cent and 73 per cent respectively of respondents agreed.
Furthermore, the region's respondents largely agreed that online forms of communication have replaced traditional forms: An overwhelming 80 per cent of those surveyed agreed that instant messaging and email, among other online methods, are now used instead of traditional forms of keeping in touch such as 'snail mail' and telephone conversations.
The Internet usage study was conducted to gauge Internet usage habits and attitudes among professionals and job seekers across the Middle East region.
"As we move into an increasingly digital and Internet-savvy world, everyone in the region from business leaders to social workers to housewives - across generations - are embracing the Internet whether for work, social or practical purposes," said Amer Zureikat, regional manager at Bayt.com.
"By conducting such a study, we can look at how people are using the Internet and for what purpose, to give an indication as to where the region is in terms of Internet maturity."
The survey went on to ask respondents whether they feel the Internet has helped with social networking, and how easy or difficult they think it is to find the information they need online.
The majority of the region's respondents, 74 per cent, agreed that the Internet has been great for networking that would not otherwise be possible in the 'real world'.
The figures varied across the countries however, with an overwhelming 80 per cent of respondents in Bahrain hailing the Internet's advantages in terms of networking, closely followed by respondents in Oman (78 per cent), Tunisia (77 per cent) and Morocco (76 per cent). Interestingly the UAE was one percentage point behind the regional average; 73 per cent of respondents agreed that the Internet has empowered networking.
Attitudes regarding how easy it is to find data on the Internet showed much more variation. At the regional level, 53 per cent of respondents agreed that it is difficult to find exactly what they are looking for on the Internet because of an information overload. This figure rose to 68 per cent of respondents in Algeria and 63 per cent of respondents in Morocco.
Around the Gulf region, respondents largely varied as to how easy or difficult they find it to locate information online. Respondents in Qatar (43 per cent) followed by respondents in Kuwait (48 per cent) and the UAE (49 per cent) faced some difficulties in finding required information, contrasted with 53 per cent of respondents in Saudi Arabia and 59 per cent in Bahrain, while only 40 per cent of respondents in Lebanon said they encountered problems.
"Interestingly, when we asked the respondents to rate their own Internet capabilities, those in Lebanon came out as the most competent, with 40 per cent considering themselves to be Internet experts - the highest figure among the surveyed countries," said Joanna Longworth, chief marketing officer, YouGov Siraj.
"The regional average showed that 23 per cent of respondents consider themselves to have an intermediate level of Internet skills, 49 per cent said they are knowledgeable but need some help, and 24 per cent consider themselves as experts," she added.
Bahrain followed by the UAE (36 per cent and 31 per cent respectively) also topped the table in terms of respondents who consider themselves Internet experts.
The survey went on to ask the respondents how much time, on average, they spend using the Internet for work and leisure purposes. A significant proportion of respondents, 49 per cent, said they use the Internet for work purposes up to two hours per day, with just a quarter of respondents using the Internet for three to four hours per day.
Interestingly, 25 per cent of the region's respondents said they use the Internet for more than five hours per day. When it came down to leisure use, the figure jumped up to 67 per cent of respondents in the region who use the Internet up to two hours a day.
Asked what they use the Internet for, an overwhelming 83 per cent of the region's respondents said they use it for emailing friends and another 78 per cent of all respondents said they use it for reading news, at least once a month. Other popular online activities according to the respondents were searching for jobs (77 per cent), visiting social networking sites and listening to music (57 per cent each).
"What we have also seen from the survey is that the Internet is now a main source of information with the majority of respondents stating that it has overtaken traditional news mediums as their main source of political, business and lifestyle/leisure news," noted Zureikat.
Across the region, 87 per cent of respondents said the Internet has replaced print sources for political news to some extent. The UAE's respondents matched the average as did respondents in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
In Oman, those that now rely on the Internet for their political news was a phenomenal 93 per cent, followed by 90 per cent of Egypt's respondents. In terms of business news, 90 per cent of the region's respondents now use the Internet as a main source to varying degrees, which crept up to 91 per cent of the region's respondents who now get their main lifestyle and leisure news online.
Forty-five per cent of the respondents in the region said they were comfortable making an online transaction. This figure jumped to 55 per cent in the UAE of those comfortable to use the Internet to pay, while respondents in Kuwait, 60 per cent, were the most comfortable with using the Internet to make payments for personal matters.
The Internet does have potential for online education according to the respondents. Almost two thirds of those surveyed across the region, 65 per cent, said they would consider taking courses online or would complete an online degree in the future.
Respondents in Egypt and Oman were the most inclined to enrol for some sort of education online (76 per cent and 75 per cent respectively), which contrasts with 60 per cent of respondents in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain and 59 per cent of respondents in Lebanon - one of the least interested countries in online education.
"The advantages that the Internet presents to people all over the world are numerous, including increasing access to education and knowledge and enabling professionals across the globe to do their jobs even more proficiently," commented Longworth.
"By conducting a study such as this, not only is it very interesting to see how and why people in the region use the Internet, but it can act as an important source of data for organisations and authorities throughout the Middle East to see where any problems as to its use might lie, and then take steps to address them - in order to nurture an increasingly Internet-savvy populace," concluded Zureikat.