The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with its long days of fasting and prayer, is being reshaped by technology.
People in the Middle East spend close to 58 million more hours on Facebook during Ramadan and watch more YouTube videos than any other time of the year. It makes the holy month not only the most important one for Muslims, but also the prime time of the year for advertisers.
“Consumption and time spent on our platforms does indeed increase,” said Ramez Shehadi, Facebook’s managing director for the Middle East and North Africa.
People stay up a lot more at night during Ramadan and have more downtime – especially before iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daylong fast, and the “suhoor”, when people gather to eat before another day of fasting.
Many also work shorter hours during the day. All that translates to 5% more time spent on Facebook’s platforms, or what is nearly 58 million more hours, Mr Shehadi said.
Put another way, there are almost two million hours of additional time spent daily on Facebook in the Middle East during Ramadan.
Ramadan is also the peak season for advertising in the region, as TV dramas and soap operas get a 151% increase in viewership on YouTube during the holy month, according to Google.
“Our revenue is a function of people’s engagement,” Mr Shehadi said.
“The more that they engage on our platforms, the more that advertisers want to be able to reach those that are engaging. That’s what drives our revenue.”
So much ad revenue is spent during Ramadan that Google launched The Lantern Award to celebrate the most creative and engaging ads of the month.
Yet Ramadan is not just about abstaining from food and drink, including water, during the day. It is also about disconnecting from vacuous distractions and focusing on contemplation, introspection, acts of good, charity and connecting with God.
Google does not disclose total watch time for YouTube during Ramadan, but says that in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, viewing of sports videos jumps by 22%, travel videos by 30%, and action games, simulation and video games by 10-20% during the holy month.
People also spend 27% more time watching religious content on YouTube in Ramadan.
“To us, YouTube brings people together. We see a lot of people wanting to watch things together,” said Joyce Baz, Google’s head of communications in the Middle East and North Africa.
She added that Google products, such as its search engine, are there “to simplify people’s lives so that they can focus on things that matter, like being with their loved ones and family”.
Google’s Qibla Finder, for example, helps Muslims find the direction of Mecca to pray towards, wherever they happen to be.
Google says this year’s top trending search queries during the first week of Ramadan in Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia included a surprising mix of Game Of Thrones, prayer times, Ramadan TV shows, film timings and English Premier League results.