ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — Turkmen's government has cracked down on websites that criticize the repressive regime, but the Internet's potential to lure young people from traditional dating and marriage practices is the key concern for many parents and teachers.
Maral, 20, from the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, met a man in a chat forum and soon after married him.
"I made a decision on my own against the will of my parents, who had somebody else in mind [for me] to marry," said Maral, who asked that her last name not be used. "And I don't regret it."
Turkmen parents usually play a large role in choosing marriage partners for their children, often selecting suitors from close clan relatives.
The Internet is changing all that. Although the state-run Internet service provider blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, increasing numbers of young Turkmens are trying their luck in love on popular chat forums such as mail.ru, mobimeet.ru, icq.com and VKontake.ru.
The chat sites are so popular that young men will ask a woman for her user name instead of her phone number.
The sites have prompted some parents to worry that their teenage daughters have secret lives online or come into contact with men only interested in casual sex.
In addition, young men have been solicited to pay $1.80 in phone credits for the chance to connect with young women. Some men also have reported being deceived by photos of an attractive young woman, only to discover that the user is a man.
A user on the Turkmen-language chat forum ertir.com proposed creating a chat site for Turkmens that would "keep the immorality in check," as an alternative to mail.ru, which he called "deeply harmful to society."
"People don't know how to use this new freedom, they discuss intimate details of their relationships in forums or engage in fights using sexually explicit language or swear words," said Chary, a mail.ru user. "The chat forums have pulled down the walls of virtue and good behavior."
Turkmens were forbidden access to the Internet until 2008.
Meanwhile, teachers are concerned that students' obsession with chat forums is affecting their academic performance. Many report students using mobile phones to access the Internet during class and fear that chatting online cuts into time they should be spending on homework.
Turkmen schools have seen a recent decline in performance in international rankings. This prompted teachers a few months ago to petition the government to block access to chat forums, education officials said.
Some users fear that parents' and teachers' concerns about chat forums could prompt the government to block more Internet sites.
The owner of the Turkmen blogging and chat forum teswirler.com recently shut down the site after coming under increasing pressure by the government to monitor comments, especially those of a political nature, according to local media.
The state has an absolute monopoly on the media. Freedom House, an international democracy advocate, named Turkmenistan as one of nine "worst of the worst 2011" in a report on the world's most repressive societies.