Channel 4 in the UK has come under fire over a new reality show in which children are assessed for their ability to take care of themselves without parental supervision.
Childcare experts and politicians fear that the series, featuring eight-to-11-year-olds, could degenerate into "voyeuristic and low-grade entertainment" and leave the young participants traumatised.
AdvertisementThe series will become "a mini Big Brother" as the boys and girls are filmed on hand-held cameras in separate cottages in Cornwall coping with day-to-day chores without any parental supervision, it is apprehended.
Called Boys and Girls Alone, the four-part documentary, sees the children cook for themselves, clean their rooms, make their own sleeping arrangements and decide how to spend their own money.
The programme looks at whether "living in a safe environment", the children will be able to get along and cope without adults telling them what to do.
As they build their new worlds, the boys and girls are observed on TV monitors by their parents as well as trained chaperones 24 hours a day.
In the first programme, the children arrive in their new surroundings and get to know each other, with comfy beds, stocks of food, necessities and toys.
Conforming to stereotype, while the girls bake cakes and make canapes, the boys have a gigantic water fight and eat sweets, crisps and chips with cheese.
But the wet and hungry boys soon start to miss their mothers and re-consider the benefits of having rules and parents to wash and cook.
Meanwhile the girls squabble over sleeping and cooking arrangements and, as they split into factions, some of them feel "picked on."
The documentary is being made by Love Productions, the company behind The Baby Borrowers, a BBC3 series which left teenagers to look after other people's children, Telegraph reported.
The programme has been attacked by childcare experts as "a sick" reality show. Local authority officials were so concerned about the "very real risk" of physical and psychological damage to the children that they urged the BBC to cancel it.
Andrew Hibberd, the director of the Parent Organisation, said he feared that some of the children taking part in the Channel 4 documentary risked being bullied by their classmates, especially if they were caught on camera crying.
"If the documentary is intended to be educational in its output, that's good, but I doubt it will," he said.
"The big danger is that the producers will have preconceived ideas of what they expect to get from it. I think they will expect the boys to fight more than the girls, be unable to cook and be dirtier, and I fear the editing will reflect those ideas rather than being fair and unbiased. I'm sure the programme will serve no useful purpose and will simply be voyeuristic and low-grade entertainment".
David Davies, the Conservative MP, said: "It sounds appalling. Given how hard adults find it to cope with reality shows like Big Brother, to put children in that environment is asking for trouble. There's a danger this could leave children traumatised."
Eileen Hayes, a parenting advisor for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: "I think the children are too young to be in the programme. It looks like another experimental situation that the media has set up for good television.
"It's really a cause for concern. Producers of these kinds of programmes always say that the children have given their informed consent but how can an eight-year-old know what the implications might be?"
The Daily Mirror quoted Labour MP Denis MacShane as saying: "Children should be protected and not exploited for commercial gain."
And Liz Carnell of charity Bullying UK told the newspaper: "This just sounds like Big Brother Junior.
"And considering the amount of bullying-related complaints we get about that show it is certainly not an environment young people should be placed in."
But Andrew Mackenzine, Channel Four's head of factual entertainment, defended the programme, saying the safety of the children was "absolutely paramount".
"Parents are effectively on the other side of the gates watching on CCTV. There were also security guards and chaperones," he said. "The parents thought it was an incredibly positive experience for their kids to go through. We were taking them away for two weeks so they were highly monitored.
"You are just left with this positive feeling that these kids are wonderful. We've got this generation here of brilliant kids. If they're let off the loose they're brilliant."
It was further stated on behalf of the channel: "There was the kind of tussling you'd get in any playground, but definitely no physical violence.
"Similarly, there were bickering and disagreements. The boys were not very good at fending for themselves and struggled to make food.
"But the girls were making cupcakes and canapes.
"This is not a project for commercial gain, it is done with the parents' full consent.
"They were watching and there were mentors and a clinical psychologist who made sure there were no problems."
Channel 4 is a public-service television and radio. Although entirely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned.
It had only recently attracted criticism over some explicit images shown during a sex education programme. Watchdog Ofcom is to investigate charges.