Key Points:

One child in four is at risk of drowning at the beach because their caregivers are more concerned about their tans, cellphones or having a chit-chat, a study has found.

Auckland University lecturer Kevin Moran said the study of behaviours and attitudes of beachgoers and their duty of care to their children revealed disturbing patterns.

He questioned more than 700 parents and caregivers in charge of young children at 18 popular surf and flat-water beaches in the upper North Island in late summer last year.

Of those interviewed, 75 per cent paid constant attention to their children's safety and were aware of the risks such as water depth, tides and weather conditions.

"Of those parents and caregivers who didn't provide adequate supervision, one third lay on the beach sunbathing and half talked to other people or chatted on their cell-phones," said Dr Moran. "Some had even left the beach."

Dr Moran, who is chairman of WaterSafe Auckland, said parents needed to be willing to get wet to supervise their children properly.

"If you are supervising children on your own, keep them grouped together. If in any doubt, keep your children out."

Surf Life Saving New Zealand chief executive Geoff Barry said the results were surprisingly better than he thought but still marginal.

He said it was not unusual for many frustrated lifeguards to feel like they were a babysitting service.

"It is extreme but there are stories where kids are dropped off at the beach while mum goes to the supermarket and hence there is an abdication of responsibility," said Mr Barry.

"The beach is seen as safe because the patrols are there and the lifeguards are there and the kids are told to swim between the flags. Let me assure you, this is not so."

The study also found 74 per cent of people on their own with children were most likely to provide proper care while at the beach. But one in five parents or caregivers said they could not swim non-stop for 100m in open water.

Dr Moran said the home was the most common environment for children aged under 5 to drown and just 2 per cent of all drownings for infants aged 4 and under happened at beaches.

But the study showed the risk of drowning in open water increased with age and the beach - which accounts for a quarter of all drownings - becomes the most common place for children to drown after the age of 5.

Meanwhile, statistics from Water Safety NZ showed 18 people drowned at surf and flat beaches last year, down from the 25 who died in 2003.

More than 80 per cent of drowning victims are male.

Europeans (50 per cent) were twice as likely as Maori (23 per cent) to drown and the most at-risk age groups were people aged 15 to 24 or 65 and above.

Dr Moran urged parents to be more vigilant this summer and adopt close and constant supervision even in calm conditions.

* Beach bunnies

A quarter of all parents and caregivers do not provide adequate protection for their children at the beach

Half of this group talked to other people or chatted on cell phones while a third lay on the beach and sunbathed

The most supervision (74 per cent) was by a single person irrespective of the number of children in the water

One fifth of all parents/caregivers estimated they could not swim 100m non-stop in open water

Source: Child Water Safety and Parental Supervision on Beaches 2007 by Dr Kevin Moran

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA