Researchers found that 14- and 15-year-olds believe that programmes aimed at them have less to do with "normal life" than adult-oriented shows such as Men Behaving Badly, according to How Children See Themselves on TV, a report commissioned by Channel 4 and the British Film Institute (BFI).
"You never see normal people on television, people who are just there. You always see people doing things that are really dramatic," one 15 year-old boy told the report's author, Hannah Davies, a research officer at the Institute of Education.
Ms Davies reports that the long-running BBC school drama Grange Hill and the Australian soap opera Neighbours came under fire from pupils in Stockport and Cardiff because "they never showed people smoking, drinking or taking drugs as part of everyday life. It always had to be part of an "issue-based storyline". Grange Hill was criticised by one boy for always trying "to preach about things being bad for you".
Girls criticised the Channel 4 soap opera Hollyoaks for having unrealistically attractive female characters and for presenting teenagers whose lifestyles were "unfeasibly interesting". One 15-year-old boy said: "In Hollyoaks, everything seems really great - you know normal life is not like that." The drinking, smoking and swearing shown in Men Behaving Badly was considered to be "more realistic".
Criticism of a lack of realism was balanced by a desire for television to be exciting and interesting.
Ms Davies said: "The children clearly want to see 'people like them' on television, but 'people like them' is a term that is interpreted very widely. It can mean people who are funny and confident, but it also means people who worry about being popular, who get anxious about homework, have spots, smoke, take drugs - who are, however they perceive it, 'normal'.
"Because these definitions of 'normal' vary, there is no magical formula for [programme makers] showing children of all ages and from all over the country truthfully, accurately, fairly and fully."
Ms Davies questioned 59 children aged 7-15 at schools in London, Trowbridge, Cardiff and Stockport. She presented her findings yesterday at the Channel 4BFI Children on Screen conference, at the National Film Theatre, London.
Pupils in the 11-12 and 14-15 age groups felt boys had a rougher deal from television than girls. Boys were always being shown as "rough and stupid", while girls were always "good and in the right".
Children also showed they were sensitive to racial and national stereotypes. One 12-year-old girl in Cardiff said: "Anyone Welsh [on television] always has to have a sheep in their back garden. We're not like that in Cardiff."
In the 7-8 age group, the people children said they would like to be included Spiderman, the footballers Eric Cantona and Andy Cole, and the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, because, said one, "he can batter people".
How Children see themselves on TV is available from Hugh Johnson, Research Department, Channel 4, 124 Horseferry Road, London, SW1 2TX.