A MORI poll for the Cancer Research Campaign found that nearly 60 per cent of 8- to 10-year-olds think a sun tan makes them look cool, compared with 40 per cent who would want to be thin.
Professor Gordon McVie, the CRC's director-general, said: "Unless attitudes change, skin cancer could overtake an-orexia as the biggest new threat to our children in the next decades."
The findings were published to coincide with the second year of the charity's Cover Up Campaign. There are 40,000 new cases of skin cancer reported in Britain every year and the most serious form of the disease, malignant melanoma, kills 1,500 people annually.
The survey found that northern youngsters were more enthusiastic about getting a tan than southerners, but there was little difference in attitude between boys and girls.
Awareness of the link between sunburn and skin cancer increases with age - 12 per cent of 8-year-olds know this, compared with 28 per cent of 10-year-olds. Three-quarters of the 400 children interviewed said they had been told by their parents not to get sunburnt.
Four in 10 of the children said they had been burnt at least once and 1 in 10 on at least three separate occasions.
While the majority said they had sunscreen, there was less awareness of the health dangers of sunburn. While 66 per cent of children realised sunbathing was bad for you, more children thought that not brushing your teeth was bad for your health.
"Unprotected children exposed to the sun could pay the price later in life," said Professor McVie. "Experts believe it takes only six bouts of sunburn during a lifetime to double this risk of developing skin cancer. Skin cancer prevention messages must begin in childhood and be actively promoted by parents, teachers and role models."
Professor Anne Charlton, director of the CRC Education and Child Studies Research Group, said: "Research in the past 15 years has provided evidence that excessive sun exposure during the first 10 to 20 years of life greatly increases the risk of skin cancer ... It is estimated that children spend three times as much time outside as adults do and that most of a person's lifetime's sun exposure occurs in childhood."
Katie Aston, manager of the Health Education Authority Sun Know How Campaign, said: "It is vital that both children and adults know that simple precautions that can protect them against skin cancer."
HEA guidance says people should shift to the shade around midday, take care not to burn, cover up and use a high-factor sunscreen on exposed skin.