Half of the 12-year-olds in Malta can freely access the internet from their bedroom, while another quarter have cable TV in their sleeping area, according to fresh research.

Traditional media barely features in lives of 12- to 15-year-olds

The ability to surf the net from the privacy of their bedroom rises with age to 62 per cent for 13-year-olds and 63 per cent for 14-year-olds.

These figures emerge from the preliminary nationwide research of Velislava Hillman as part of her postgraduate work, at a time when society is debating the hyper-sexualisation of teens through media and social networking.

The recent controversy over teen parties where girls younger than 14 cavort in lingerie, mimicking erotic dancers has also led to a debate on whether this is typical teenage rebellion or the disintegration of values coupled with parents’ lack of supervision.

The study took a sample of 744 youngsters aged 12 to 15, with a small percentage of 16-year-olds, with a proportionate representation of students in state, Church and private schools.

There is no recent or past research available on media consumption of youngsters under 16, so Ms Hillman set out to fill this vacuum. The questionnaire was based on that used by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an established non-profit organisation in the US.

The study measures the time young people spend with media on a daily basis, their multitasking habits, and their performance in school in relation to media consumption, among others.

“I wanted to establish what youngsters consume at this tender age where they are shaping their attitudes and value system. It is important for parents, teachers and policymakers to be aware of the situation,” Ms Hillman said.

The figures shed light on the young generation and exposes shifts in their parents’ lifestyle and attitudes towards the impact new media has on their children.

Research abroad has shown the time young people spend with new media technologies is equivalent to a full-time job, and this is reflected in Malta, where children as young as 12 own a mobile phone (96 per cent), an iPod or MP3 player (73 per cent), a smartphone (43 per cent), and video games (43 per cent).

Traditional media – such as printed books, magazines and newspapers – barely feature in the lives of 12- to 15-year-olds and just a quarter would read a book for more than 30 minutes on a typical day. Ms Hillman believes this figure is actually lower, as during the focus groups she conducted before embarking on this study, most of them said they “never” read anything printed.

A child is not prepared for these things, he needs time to learn how to tame his impulses

Children aged 12-16 spend between two to 13 hours with some form of media on a typical day and none of this media use is in any way related to schools projects or homework.

The study revealed a correlation between how students scored in school and their level of media use. Heavy media users (three hours and more in a day) are more likely to perform poorly and get grades of 50 per cent and less, when compared with moderate (30 minutes to one hour) and light (up to 30 minutes) users.

A similar correlation exists between media use and the level of youngsters’ personal contentment. Heavy users said they were often bored (45 per cent compared with 23 cent of light users), got into trouble a lot (49 per cent compared with 22 per cent), and were often sad or unhappy (43 per cent compared with 25 per cent).

Light users tended to have more friends (37 per cent compared with 28 per cent of heavy users), get along with their parents (43 per cent compared with 27 per cent) and are happy at school (40 per cent as opposed to 26 per cent).

However, Ms Hillman said: “Despite the existence of correlations between media use and school performance, and media use and personal contentedness, this is not to say that there is a cause and effect relationship. Even if such relationship exists it can equally run in both directions at the same time.”

Multitasking – reading, while listening to music and browsing the internet – has also become a way of life for youngsters, and the older they are, the more they indulge in this habit. Those aged 12-14 are equally split, but 15- to 16-year-olds are predominantly multitaskers – 52 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

An “astonishing” 26 per cent actually multitask “most of the time” while doing their homework.

There are many arguments about how well children can focus on one activity and how well they can deliver while doing something else simultaneously. However, school grades are a clear indicator of which children multitask and which don’t – the majority of multitaskers fare below average in school, while those who get grades of between 75 and 100 per cent never multitask.

Social networks such as Facebook – about 80 per cent spend between one to three hours a day, My Space and Youtube are the most popular activity among youngsters aged 12-16. About 30 per cent spend more than three hours on these sites.

Recent international studies have covered the influence media exert over adolescents’ self-perception, materialism, depression, and eating disorders to mention but a few.

Ms Hillman said the boundary of childhood had blurred in large part due to media. She quoted from American media theorist Neil Postman who speaks about how children as young as 11 now know as much as a 60-year-old, about war, famine, death, incest; things he calls “the adult secrets”.

“And here, the problem is not that the child may learn about these secrets but when he learns about them. A child is not prepared for these things, he needs time to learn how to tame his impulses and self-control,” she said.

“As Neil Postman metaphorically puts it, ‘having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information, they are expelled from the garden of childhood.”

Ms Hillman’s study is the first step in gaining a better insight into the media exposure and consumption of young people and paves the way for future studies of this sort that will enable the comparison over the years.

Ms Hillman believes gaining knowledge about media use and exposure plays a vital role in the effort to build and maintain a healthy environment for young people.

“We cannot isolate children from media because it’s such an integral part of our lives. What we all need to focus on is striking the eternal balances,” she said.