Are Yemeni boys becoming ‘mouse potatoes’? [Archives:2006/974/Reportage]

August 21 2006

Mohammed Al-Jabri
“I don't like playing football or doing anything else as much as I like browsing the internet, which includes everything,” says 11-year-old Wael Al-Hammadi.

Al-Hammadi states that he prefers going to internet cafes to enjoy himself before school reopens. “I want to exploit my vacation to get to know the internet. They say browsing the internet brings the world into your hands,” he notes, adding that he's come to know about hundreds of and games and music without having the chance to play any because “most of the web sites are in English,” he explained.

Al-Hammadi is just one example of thousands of Yemeni boys who spend much time in cyber cafes. “You perhaps can find boys in nearly every internet cafe, especially during their summer vacation,” Sana'a internet cafe owner Faisal Hadi suggests.

However, Hadi clarifies that boys usually aren't allowed to enter internet cafes during school hours. “When schools open, some employees don't allow any young boy to sit or use the internet, especially when he comes in his school uniform. But we can't do this when they return from school and also when it's vacation.”

Boys vs. parents

Over the past six years, internet cafes have increased markedly in Yemen, namely in major cities. For many boys, these newborn places are good for entertainment. However, parents begin worrying about their sons who always visit internet cafes, thinking they are places where they'll come to learn immoral values.

“The internet can expose our sons to pornography and inculcate them with decadent values,” said one father sitting near an internet cafe waiting for his son to prevent him from entering it. This is why they send their sons to Qur'anic schools, language institutes, summer school camps, etc.

“This year, when summer vacation began, I sent my sons to a Qur'anic school in the morning and a private language institute in the evening,” Fahmi Al-Ansi says, “because I learned that my two sons used to go to internet cafes. I don't like them to be internet-addicted.”

A 'mouse potato' may spend long hours at the computer playing games, surfing the internet, checking favorite web sites, instant messaging or reading email. He might even be doing homework or researching a school project. The engaging nature of computers and the internet makes it easy to lose track of time.

Although some parents resort to strict measures, the fact of boys going to internet cafes has become unavoidable because they visit internet cafes despite their parents' attempts. Abdul-Rahman Taher, a 44-year-old father of three, says, “My son says he's playing with his friends when in reality, he's using the internet. He simply says he's at a mosque but in fact, he can be found in a nearby internet cafe. A father can't help observe his son(s) all the time.”

In most cases, boys visit internet cafes before or after they go to the private learning institutes to which their parents send them. Abdul-Rahman, 15, confesses that he surfs the internet two to three hours a day after finishing his language classes. “I can't stop using the internet. Every day, I go to an internet cafe near the institute where I study, but no one knows about this except my friends. If my father learns about this, he won't allow me to leave the house anymore,” he explained.

Thus, at times, parents must search for their sons in internet cafes. Hadi recounts that once a mother, likely in her 40s, came into his internet cafe searching for her son. “She seemed angry at the time. She passed every internet user in the cafe, staring at their faces in the hope that she'd see her son. She left the cafe, warning me not to allow her son to use the internet,” he added.

Such incidents can end in a quarrel between a father and an internet owner. According to some Sana'a neighborhood locals, some fathers threaten internet owners not to allow their sons to use the internet. “A few months ago, a quarrel erupted between an internet employee and a father whose son used to spend hours surfing the internet. The father already had warned the employee not to allow his son to use the internet,” said Ahmed Nasser, a resident of Sheraton St. neighborhood in Sana'a.

Not only this, boys themselves face problems obtaining money to use the internet. “Getting money is a problem, as I need YR 200 every day for the internet. My father sometimes gives me money and sometimes he doesn't. In any case, I have good friends who always lend me money,” Abdul-Rahman said.

Hadi says he notices some boys, who seem to be friends, have problems over who'll pay for the internet. “This is why anyone wishing to use the internet should pre-pay,” he added.

A vast world

“The internet enables us to know about things that aren't in Yemen,” 14-year-old Omar Al-Ahjeri, says, “It's an imaginable world where you can get what you ask. I just search in Google for anything I wish. Woo, I can talk to and hear people overseas.”

According to some internet owners, boys' interests actually vary to some extent, with the majority preferring chat web sites while others like entertainment sites. “If they aren't forbidden, then nearly all boys would browse sexually explicit materials,” 25-year-old teacher Nasser Al-Hamami says.

He goes on to say that a few years ago, all internet users, including boys, were able to visit pornographic web sites. At that time, internet cafes had partitions separating one computer from another, thus giving users full freedom to surf the web sites they wanted without others knowing. “Even women, especially university girls who'd never seen a single pornographic photo, were able to view innumerable sex photos and sometimes porn movies,” he continued.

However, by government decision, such partitions now have been removed, thus limiting users' freedom to browsing just those sites that don't seem immoral. At that time, internet cafes suffered losses as customer numbers began to decrease. The cost of using the internet decreased as well. “This set yet another trend as users began to turn to online chatting and spend a lot of time at a lower price,” social expert Mohammed Mujahed says.

According to Mujahed, most young boys visit chat web sites for a couple of reasons. On one hand, they use the internet for entertainment and online chatting serves that purpose. On the other, practically no boys use the internet to search for information, knowledge or the like, so they turn to online chatting instead.

“Of course, especially nowadays, boys have an irresistible desire to visit pornographic web sites, especially as they've heard much about them either from their friends or by chatting with others on the web. But they find themselves watched by others and may be dismissed from the cafe if they do so,” Mujahed noted.

Despite instructions inside internet cafes warning users not to visit immoral web sites, some boys are unembarrassed to surf sexual photos. “Some boys sit with their friends in internet cafes and feel courageous enough to visit pornographic web sites. The internet owner sometimes seems helpless and can't kick them out to avoid fighting with them,” Mujahed explained.

“When a child visits a pornographic web site, I immediately shut down his computer and kick him out. Of course, this sometimes causes problems for me,” Hadi commented.

Moreover, most internet cafes set up games on computers so it's easier for boys to play them instead of downloading them from the internet. “I once went to an internet cafe to email a friend of mine. To my surprise, all of the users there were boys just playing computer games. The cafe owner said he provides internet service only in the evening, while customers only can play games in the morning,” Al-Hamami recounted.

The internet first was introduced in Yemen in 1996, with very limited users at that time. Official statistics for 2000 showed that the percent of internet subscribers was 3.51 for every 10,000 people, 4.7 percent for every 10,000 people during the second half of 2002 and 8 percent for every 10,000 people by the end of 2002.

There were 36,600 computers in 2000, that is, one computer for every 500 citizens, and 0.82 percent for every 100 people in 2002. Statistics at that time show the number of computers as 140,000.