Prague, 28 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-six-year-old Maryam of Tehran uses the Internet on a daily basis, mostly to read the latest news. Maryam says she read the new police warning about the dangers of the Internet while she was surfing the web.
"I actually saw this news today on the Internet. Well, I don't think the Internet is a problematic thing. It depends on how we use it. Since our books and our magazines are not updated, we get the latest news through the Internet. There is no other place we can refer to," Maryam said.
"Beware of falling into the trap of Internet addiction. Don't hurt your physical and mental health by visiting immoral sites."
There are no reliable figures on the number of Internet users in Iran. U.S. government estimates in 2002 put the number at 1.3 million -- ranking it 42nd in the world. Iranian media outlets, however, put the number between 4 million and 7 million. In 2000, Iran was ranked 69th in the world in the number of personal computers per capita.
The Iranian police directive was published earlier this week on the Internet and in the country's newspapers. It reads: "Today, the best means of communication in the world has been manifested in the Internet, which like a boat familiarizes us with the exquisite shores of the world, but these shores are always frequented by dangerous sharks."
Among the dangers, the statement says "indecent pictures" available on some sites jeopardize the mental health of Internet users and could lead to "depression, ideological weakness, as well as psychological damage."
The Internet remains one of the only free sources of information in Iran, where the media is under the tight control of conservative authorities and most independent publications have been shut down in recent years. The government has attempted to filter some websites it deems inappropriate, but with little success.
Iran's population, one of the youngest in the world, is increasingly using the Internet as a window on the wider world. On the Internet, they can read about subjects that do not receive coverage in the state media because they are deemed un-Islamic.
Public life is also tightly controlled in the Islamic republic, and mingling between boys and girls is not allowed in public. As a result, many young people use the Internet as a way to freely talk to members of the opposite sex, to make new friends, or simply to express themselves.
Maryam says most of her friends use the Internet for checking the latest news, getting in touch with friends, or for making new friends through so-called “chat rooms.”
"Fortunately, this is a channel that nobody can prevent us from using. Well, [the authorities] do filter some sites, but there are also anti-filters, and if a person wants to do something, he or she will do it, regardless of the warnings," Maryam said.
Some Iranian officials express concern that young people are using the Internet only for "fun."
Mohammad Amir Foroughi is a computer expert and an Internet researcher based in Tehran.
"According to the figure I have, which has been approved by different sources, our youth in Iran uses the Internet in 70 percent of the cases only for chat. Unfortunately, the use of the Internet for educational purposes is only 6 percent, and it's only for academic work. Internet surfing is usually done for pictures, films, and new shows," Foroughi said.
In this week's directive, Iranian police also warn young Iranian web surfers over the dangers of Internet addiction.
"Beware of falling into the trap of Internet addiction," the statement says. "Don't hurt your physical and mental health by visiting immoral sites." It says familial and social relationships can unwittingly suffer through overuse of the Internet.
Foroughi says Internet usage in Iran is growing by around 20 percent each year and that "addiction" will increasingly become a problem in the country: "Our youth in Iran between the ages of 14 and 20 generally spend their time [playing] games, and there is more addiction to [online] games. Besides that, at night from their homes, they use the Internet for access to chat rooms, [downloading] music files, and so on."
This is the first time Iranian police have issued a warning about the dangers of the Internet. Some observers say the directive is part of Tehran's efforts to confront cyber-crime. Others say the directive is simply an acknowledgment by Iranian authorities of their failure to block access to controversial sites.