This study aimed at addressing two main questions: 1) what factors encourage (or discourage) the Saudi female students to use Facebook? and 2) how do the Saudi female students use Facebook?
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Factors that Encourage or Discourage Saudi Women from using Facebook
The results in this study are consistent with the literature and suggest that international Saudi women are “just like everyone else” (Alsaggaf, 2011). The results showed that various factors encourage Saudi female students to use Facebook. It was found that almost all friends of the Saudi students had Facebook accounts and were active participants in the site. This, in addition to frequent requests by their friends to join the site, attracted Saudi women to join the site.
The family also played a role in Saudi women’s decision to join the social networking site. In one case, the husband of the respondent encouraged her to join the SNS and in other cases, brothers, cousins, and uncles of the Saudi women were active participants of the SNS and this encouraged them to join it. Young (2009) and Alsaggaf (2011) also found that peer pressure and curiosity were major attractors of Saudi women to FB.
Curiosity is another personal environment factor that attracted Saudi women to join and use Facebook. Curiosity can be looked at from two angles: curiosity as a result of the need to explore the site and what the site is all about, and curiosity resulting from bad publicity of the site. In Saudi Arabia, FB had received bad publicity from the media, which labeled it as corruptive and scandalous. This made some of the Saudi females curious about the site and decided to try it out for themselves. Al-Otaibi (2011) also found curiosity to be a key attractor of Saudi students to Facebook.
Technology features also attracted Saudi women to use the site. The ease of use of FB, convenience (due to the fact that the site can be accessed from an iPhone), high level of privacy, and user interface (the appearance and organization of the site) all attracted the interest of the Saudi women to FB. The effect of technology features on attracting users to SNS has been studied by other researchers. For instance, Kim, Sohn, and Choi (2010) found that convenience was one of the primary reasons why American and Korean college students use SNS. Shade (2008) also mentioned convenience and peer pressure as attractors to FB by young Canadian women.
Some factors can also discourage Saudi women from using FB. The discouraging factor identified in this study relates to technical difficulties, in particular lack of computing skills and language. Saudi women who lack computer skills can find it difficult to navigate the site and this may encourage them from using the site. In addition, FB is in English, and therefore Saudi women who do not understand the language cannot use the site.
Use of Facebook by Saudi Women
The second research question of this study is on the manner in which Saudi women use FB. This question is broad and includes issues such as the amount of time committed to FB on a daily basis, reasons for using FB, the most frequent activities the Saudi women engage in, information revelation behavior of the Saudi women, and the use of FB in Australia vs. in Saudi Arabia.
The amount of time allocated to FB by Saudi women varies between 10-30 minutes (for the majority) and 1-2 hours. The study found that the majority of Saudi women use FB even when they are busy. Some of the women described themselves as FB addicts when they were new to the SNS. FB has become part of the students’ daily lives, a fact that has also been found by Pempek, Yermolayeva, and Calvert (2009).
According to Pempek et al. (2009), college students in the United States spend on average 30 minutes on FB every day and FB has become integrated into their lives irrespective of whether or not they are busy. Joinson (2008) also found that majority of FB users in his study access the site either once a day or more than once a day. However, in the study by Joinson (2008), the majority of the users spend between 2 and 5 hours a day and only a handful of the users spend less than 1 hour a day on the site. This finding contradicts that of Pempek et al. (2009) and this study. On the other hand, the study by Aljasir, Woodcock, and Harrison (2012) found that Saudi students do not use FB because of lack of time, among other reasons.
The negative effect of using FB – time-wasting – has also been reported by other researchers such as Young (2009), Al-otaibi (2011), Al-saggaf (2011), and Shade (2008). The finding that participants neglected their studies is also supported by other researchers such as Pempek et al. (2009) and Al-saggaf (2011), who found a link between lower grades and Facebook.
Saudi women use FB for various reasons. The greatest reason is to keep in constant communication with their friends and family. These include new friends they made while in Australia as well as old friends from their childhood and schoolmates. Maintaining strong ties with friends has also been reported previously (Young 2009). FB, therefore, helps to overcome the geographical and cost barriers to other forms of communication such as face-to-face and phone calls.
According to Ellison, Lampe, and Steinfield (2007), “social network sites are changing the way we form and maintain our relationships with others, with demonstrable benefits,” (p. 9). Keeping in touch was also found to be the most common reason for using FB, according to the study conducted by Joinson (2008) and Alsaggaf (2011). Keeping in touch was followed closely by social surveillance; that is, watching people.
FB is also used as a source of news and information about their friends and family and current events happening in their home country, the Arab world and other parts of the world. The use of FB to get news about friends and to keep in touch with them was also found by Acquisti and Gross (2006) whose study was on students in a North American college. Pempek et al. (2009) also found that college students use FB to get more news about old friends than newly made friends (for instance, friends made in high school). However, this was more common among the younger students than older students.
The Saudi women find FB to be more effective in delivering up-to-date news than the media in their home country which is tightly controlled by the Saudi government. FB is also used by the Saudi women as a marketing tool where thy can obtain services and advertise their businesses. Some Saudi women use FB as a venue for sharing their opinions with members from the opposite sex and different religious groups, something that is practically impossible in their home country due to cultural barriers (Anonymous, 2010; Oshan, 2007).
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FB therefore provides “a new and completely different way in which female voices can be heard and taken notice of more effectively,” (Rikowski, 2009, p. 57). The infrequent use of FB to share opinion was also found by Pempek et al. (2009). On the other hand, Al-saggaf (2011) found that majority of the participants in his study use FB to express their political opinions. In addition, the Saudi women use FB for entertainment, which takes various forms such as taking quizzes, joining groups, sharing photos and playing games.
However, playing games is only common among the young and single women. Using FB for fun has however not been reported elsewhere. In fact Young’s (2009) study indicated that SNS were less important as a form of entertainment. It is not clear if this difference is a result of Western and Arabic cultural differences. Very few of the Saudi women use FB for academic purposes although they recognize the potential it has in promoting education.
With regard to FB’s frequent activities, all the Saudi women use Facebook to post photos. In majority of the cases, the photos posted are non-personal as the Saudi culture forbids women from showing off their faces to strange men. Only in rare cases (among the young and single students) do the women share personal photos with their friends. This finding contrasts that of Al-saggaf (2011), in which posting of personal photos was found to be common among the participants.
Besides posting of photos, lurking seems to be a common activity among Saudi women. Lurking refers to reading others’ posts without commenting. The Saudi women only post when they have something new to share or when they read an interesting post. Pempek et al. (2009) found lurking to be the most frequent activity engaged in by American college students followed by looking at photos and reading news feed. Posting notes and posting photos were among the most infrequent activities among this group of FB users.
The Saudi women believe in revealing their real identity to the public. Revelation of accurate and complete information about oneself contracts the finding by Al-otaibi (2011) but supports the studies by Jones and Soltren (2005), Young (2009), and Acquisti and Gross (2006). Acquisti and Gross (2006) state that, “if a certain type of information is provided at all, it is likely to be of good quality: complete and accurate,” (p. 13).
All the Saudi women in this study reveal their basic information including real names, sex, and relationship status. However, when it comes to personal information such as date of birth, physical address and contact information (cell number and email addresses), the Saudi women prefer to share with only their closest off-line friends. This is because they fear that the information may be misused by strangers. As a result, Saudi women mainly use the “friends-only” privacy setting.
This finding supports the study by Young and Quan-Haase (2009) who also found that majority of the participants use “friends-only” setting, but contradicts the studies by Jones and Soltren (2005) and Gross and Acquisti (2005), who found that the participants do not restrict access to the large amount of personal information they revealed.
With regard to the effects of participation in Facebook, several of the study results are in line with the recent literature. For instance, Young’s (2009), Al-otaibi’s (2011), Al-saggaf’s (2011) studies, like the current study, also found that Facebook enhanced participants’ social skills. Similarly, both the participants in the present study and those in the studies by Al-saggaf (2011) and Al-otaibi (2011) reported increased self- confidence and self- esteem as a result of their participation in SNS and attributed this increase in self esteem to the emotional support participants received from their friends as well as the ability to argue with the opposite sex.
The use of FB in Australia does not seem to differ much from FB use in Saudi Arabia. The only challenge identified by the women is slow internet connection in Saudi Arabia which may prevent them from using FB as much as they would like to. On the other hand, married Saudi women cited family responsibilities as a reason why the time they spend on FB may reduce while in Saudi Arabia. This finding contradicts that of Al-otaibi (2011) who found that married students are more likely to spend more time than the single students.
Significance of the study
This sample is not intended to be representative of the entire Saudi women SNS population, particularly given the fact that respondents are all university educated and all scholarship students so barriers related to technical and financial problems which may affect their tendency to use FB were not identified. However, while this sample is not necessarily representative of the SNS community the findings do provide many insights into the experiences of active online social network users, particularly from the Saudi perspective, which contributes to the overall picture of this global phenomenon.
The current research on Saudi female students in the Australian universities and their attitude towards SNSs has produced significant findings that can be useful in improving educational opportunities for students in the future. Because of the importance of this topic associated with the rapid growth in the number of Saudi students in Australia additional research is needed. As social networking sites become increasingly ubiquitous, this study presents a first step in understanding factors leading to Saudi women student SNSs adoption, as well as methods of fostering support for student use of SNSs applications.
With the increasing number of scholarship offered to Saudi students to study in the Australian universities, it is believed that the findings of this study will help Australian educators to understand important issues in Saudi female students’ SNS use and attitude which may affect the students’ effective utilization of these technologies for their academic achievements. Consequently, research on Saudi students in the Australian universities and their attitude towards technology will produce significant findings that can be useful in improving educational opportunities for students in the future.
Despite the existence of few studies conducted on Facebook Saudi uses (Al-saggaf, 2011; Al-otaibi, 2011), it is believed that this study will be the first study to investigate the use and attitude of overseas Saudi university female students toward SNS. It is an exploratory study that will provide base-line data for future studies in the field.
Conclusion, Limitations and Future Research
The aim of this study was to address the literature gap that exists regarding the use of social networking sites among Saudi women. This was achieved by examining SNS use among Saudi women studying in Australia. The study has found that Saudi women in Australia are attracted to FB by the same factors that attract their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and in other countries. The motives for using FB also seem to be the same across different cultures such as the American, Canadian and Korean cultures.
What came out clearly from this study was the impact of Saudi culture on the women. Despite the fact that the women who took part in this study live and study in Australia, their culture follows them wherever they go. This was revealed by their fear of posting their personal photos on their profile pages. They argued that their culture forbade them from showing off their faces to strangers. In addition, majority of their FB friends were females, a reflection of the Saudi culture, which limits communication between the two sexes. In spite of significant findings, this study is limited in several ways.
Limitations and future research
To begin with, the study used a very small sample of five students. The sample is therefore restrictive and a future study can be conducted using a bigger sample size. Time factor was another limitation which affected the study in two ways: first, the time given to conduct the study was 3 months maximum; second, the time consumed to find the Saudi students who were voluntary participants.
Another limitation was the use of qualitative approach only. Relying only on a qualitative study approach has been criticized by many researchers due to the influence of the researcher’s perception, and the difficulty of generalising to other research settings. A mixed methods research in future would help to provide more information about Facebook appropriation by Saudi women as well as to generalize the findings to the target population.
Language was another complex issue. Although the participants speak English, one of them wanted to describe their experience in Arabic and the researcher therefore became not a translator but also an interpreter.
Personal bias can be considered as another limitation. As the author is a Saudi female student in Australia, the design of the interview questions and analysis of the data were all subjective processes, in which personal experience and judgment were used to accomplish the tasks.
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