U.K. TV Show Slammed for Child Abuse

If it's not allegations of harassment of veteran British actors, or accusations of racist bullying of Bollywood actresses, it's the purported abuse of children in a reality TV show that has British television viewers and commentators upset.

Britain's Channel 4 Tuesday night aired the first episode of a television show, "Boys and Girls Alone," in which 10 boys and 10 girls, ages 8 to 11, are taken away from their parents and housed in cottages in two villages, separated by gender.

According to a statement on the show's Web site, the children "are given the chance to experience life without adults ... they decide everything about how they live, what they do, what they eat, when they get up, whether they clean and wash and how they organize and entertain themselves."

But this effort at "playing house" has already drawn comparisons to the controversial Channel 4 hit, "Big Brother" and to the celebrated William Golding novel, "Lord of the Flies."

Preview clips of the show feature children crying, begging to go home, squabbling with each other, bullying each other and, most worryingly of all, attacking each other with knives.

In an interview with ABCNews.com, Andrew Hibberd, founding director of The Parent Organization, described the program as "voyeuristic, low-grade television."

"Children need discipline, they need guidance," he said. "Without that, they will degenerate."

Calling the show "an absolutely worthless program," he expressed his concerns that some of the children involved in the show when it was filmed last year will face problems at school now that it has begun airing.

"If any of the boys in the program is shown crying or bullying other children, he will be bullied at school, because other students will think he's either a crybaby or big-headed," Hibberd said.

A Channel 4 spokesman told ABCNews.com that the filming was carried out with full consent from the parents, and that a clinical psychologist was always present to see to the children's welfare.

"We didn't just leave the children there on their own," the spokesman said. "The show wasn't shot on hidden cameras, there were crews there the whole time."

Furthermore, he added, the parents were able to watch the filming on screens away from the cottages where the children were living.

As for the much-discussed scene showing a boy turning on another with a knife, the spokesman said it had been taken out of context. "The two boys were arguing with each other, one of them was cutting a pizza with a butter knife and, in the middle of the argument, gestured to the other boy with his knife.

"We took him aside and explained to him why he shouldn't do that," the spokesman said.

The clinical psychologist on the show, David Schaich, told the British tabloid The Daily Mail that "the boys got into rough-and-tumble fights and then they'd cry for their mummies.

"The girls hardly cried at all and they were extremely verbally aggressive and clique-ish in what they said and how they treated each other. There were two groups of girls, the "in" group and the "out" group. There was no tolerance for anyone who was an outcast. ... They were pretty nasty and that was surprising."

It's unlikely that this sort of behavior will surprise anyone who has seen the Hollywood hit "Mean Girls." But the Channel 4 Web site says that the producers were compelled to make "Boys and Girls Alone" because of "fears that parents, obsessed by their children's safety, are raising a generation of 'cotton-wool kids,' restricted and protected from the real world in a way that was unthinkable a generation ago."

Although the Channel 4 spokesman said that "some of the parents found it hard to watch their kids being upset or homesick," they ultimately "feel incredibly positive about the experience, and realize that their children need more responsibility and freedom."

But even as Channel 4 defends its program, a new report from the U.K.-based charity, The Children's Society, says that Britain's children are facing a range of problems, including "family break-up, teenage unkindness, commercial pressures" and so on.

The study was carried out by a panel of independent experts, including Lord Layard, a one-time adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and two religious leaders, the Rev. Tim Stevens and Muhammad Abdul Bari.

And one of the causes for children's unhappiness? Television.

The report claims that "there is much evidence that exposure to violent images encourages aggressive behavior."

"On television, violence is frequently shown as part of a normal human life. ... The violence is both physical and psychological, and violent argument appears as a standard response to disagreement."

Although The Children's Society did not want to comment on "Boys and Girls Alone," it appears that the show's producers have inadvertently proven the point made by the experts behind the report.

The show's first episode drew a tepid response, as 2.4 million viewers tuned in, about 10 percent of the total audience share, according to unofficial overnight figures.

One person who almost certainly didn't tune in? The Parent Organization's Andrew Hibberd, who said he didn't "want to watch this sort of rubbish," adding, "I'm sure the program will serve no useful purpose."