British parents are trapping their children in a cycle of "compulsive consumerism" by showering them with toys and designer labels instead of spending quality time with them, a UN report has found.
The report by Unicef, the UN children's agency, warns that materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain as parents "pointlessly" amass goods for their children to compensate for their long working hours.
While parents said they felt compelled into buying more, the children themselves said spending time with their families made them happier.
Unicef UK said the obsession was one of the underlying causes of the riots and widespread looting which gripped the UK last month, as teenagers targeted shops for the designer clothes and goods.
The study, which was jointly funded by the Department for Education, was commissioned after an earlier Unicef report ranked Britain as the worst country in the industrialised world to be a child.
It prompted David Cameron to coin the expression “broken Britain” and fuelled calls for a raft of new family friendly policies.
In its latest study Unicef commissioned researchers from Ipsos Mori interviewed hundreds of children in Britain, Sweden and Spain, asking them about their ideas of happiness and success.
Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.
British parents work longer hours and are simply “too tired” to play with their children whom in turn they can no longer control.
Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.
In British households television is increasingly used as a "babysitter”, while children's bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.
The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers.
Among the more startling examples of obsessive consumerism uncovered by the report was a mother fretting over whether to buy a Nintendo DS games system for her three- year-old son conviced that he would be bullied if she did not get him one.
In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.
While in Spain fathers tended to work long hours, children enjoyed more attention from their mothers and wider family circle.
But in Britain, some parents spoke of having “given up” on taking their children to organised activities.
The report, authored by Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert, said: “Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist."
She concluded that there was an "enormous difference" between Britain and other countries.
She said: “While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.”
Last night Unicef called for the Government to ban advertising aimed at children under the age of 12 and encourage parents to work fewer hours and spend more time at home. It also warned councils against cutting children's playgrounds and other facilities.
David Bull, Unicef's UK director, said: “Right now politicians are grappling with the aftermath of the riots and what they…