A revealing research by a Zayed University student shows that Instagram is the frontrunner among young Emiratis with Twitter and Facebook trying to play catch-up
Shopping, celebrities and “life lessons” are the topics of conversation for Emirati children as young as seven, says a Zayed University student who has done some revealing research into the social media habits of young nationals.
Hessah Ahmed Hareb, a Masters student and teaching assistant in the Integrated Strategic Communications department at Zayed University in Dubai, surveyed 115 girls, aged between seven and 12, from two Dubai-based private schools, and found social media usage was surprisingly high.
Presenting the results of her undergraduate pilot research, ‘Social Media Tweens’, to a Middle East Public Relations Association (Mepra) conference in February, she showed about 80 per cent of the girls were using Instagram, 68 per cent used Twitter and 56 per cent had a Facebook account.
She also analysed the content of 10 Instagram and 25 Twitter accounts, for both male and female children.
Half of all Instagram posts were about shopping, she said.
“There were pictures of dresses, earrings, rings (and the words) ‘are you loving my rings?’, shopping bags.”
Landscapes from Dubai and further abroad made up about a quarter of pictures, followed by snaps of their younger brothers and sisters on 15 per cent, and food on eight per cent.
Meanwhile on Twitter, they were tweeting about what they were doing, games they were playing, uploading photos of themselves, or chatting with friends.
Others were also posting about causes, including one girl who put up a picture about a breast cancer marathon and asked: ‘who’s going to walk with me?’
“The things that interest kids are different than kids before. They’re interested in volunteer work and things like that .”
Celebrities also featured highly.
“They’re definitely the Justin Beiber generation , and Kim Kardashian is also pretty popular.
“They know more celebrities than me.
“I was really amazed with how they’re into television shows, when they’re very young. When I asked them why they used (social media), they said keeping up with celebrities, fashion, art, hairstyles and pictures...Some said to catch up on the political news,  some said to put up my baby pictures or make jokes.”
What was also surprising was they way they tweeted and talked like adults , she said.
“It’s just the way they talk and put things together on social media makes them seem older than they are...which opens up risk, possibly.”
The number of posts each child made on Instagram weekly ranged from two to 34, with an average of two to four pictures a day, “which was still quite a lot”.
More than a third tweeted in English, another 35 per cent used a mix of English and Arabic, and just six per cent used only Arabic.
More than half used unrealistic, or fake, names, such as “KimKardashianFan”.
Most ‘liked’ an average of 52 posts weekly, although one girl gave out 134 ‘likes’ in one week.
“So they’re busy...they have many distractions. It would be interesting to see the correlation between the amount of use and their grades.”
Most children had about 52 followers, people who could automatically see what they were posting, she said.
“And they may not know them, so I find it very risky sometimes. Some of the students say my mother doesn’t allow me to have Twitter, but I’m allowed Instagram...it’s weird to allow one but not the other. I was quite surprised by that. But there was quite some difference between parent to parent. Some children were not allowed (any social media) at all.”
And when it came to how important privacy settings were, only 45 per cent said they were very important. About 20 per cent said they did not care, 11 per cent said privacy settings were not important at all and they “like(d) everyone seeing (their) profile” with the remaining percentage saying they were ‘somewhat important’.
Two-thirds of all the children had mobile phones, and the majority of children used these to access their accounts, closely followed by iPads.
Almost half of the girls surveyed had more than one phone — including five per cent who had three.
“One girl told me it was because she needed a third one simply to go to the Wild Wadi water park, as she had to take a phone without a camera.”
People had been surprised about the results, Hareb said.
“When I went to a classroom and told one of the teachers what I was doing, she said ‘These kids? I don’t think they know these things (social media platforms).’ I asked how many of the children used these things. More than half raised their hands.”
Hind Al Suwaidi, parent of Deira International School student, Saeed Abdullah Al Naboodah, 11, said while she thought her son spent more time on online gaming than social media platforms, she still had rules for use.
“He cannot use his iPhone unless he’s done with his studies.
“I don’t know how long he spends on Instagram. (But) I don’t mind — if I tell him not to use it, he will use it behind my back. I follow him and he follows me back, (so I can) keep an eye on him.
“This generation — you can’t prevent them from using it. They have this curiousity...so I give him the opportunity to see what it’s all about, and there are rules and guidelines around that.”
Saeed, who also has a Facebook account, said that like most of his friends, he did not use Twitter much anymore, as Instagram was better.
“I post funny things and cute things, like my baby sister. She’s three.”
Saeed said he posted mainly in English, and occasionally in Arabic.
His favourite people to follow included YouTuber Ryan Hegel, and family members.
“My cousin posts photos with life lessons, things like “if you don’t work hard, you won’t achieve anything’...they’re quite inspiring.”
He also follows his uncle who posts pictures of drawings he has created. “He really inspires me to draw.”
Out of his friends, he considers himself the most “addicted”.
He checks it every day, and again just before he goes to sleep.
However, he only posts two or three times a week, and tries to stop posting during the majority of the school year.
“I just look the most, I don’t post as much. But I get more ‘likes’ than my friends because I put a lot of tags in so if people search one of those tags they will look at my picture and like it.”
Hareb will present her research at an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, US, later this year.