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Study Finds 'Risk Factor' for 'Latchkey Children'

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"Latchkey children" are twice as likely to drink alcohol or smoke, and nearly twice as likely to use marijuana, as their more supervised counterparts, according to a new study.

The study, reported in the September issue of Pediatrics, surveyed 4,932 8th-grade students in southern California. Of those, 68.4 percent reported caring for themselves after school for at least an hour each week.

Those who cared for themselves for more than 10 hours per week accounted for 28.6 percent of the respondents. This group was twice as likely to report a "high lifetime consumption" of alcohol (defined as having had at least 11 drinks), 2.1 times as likely to report frequent use of tobacco (a total of a pack or more of cigarettes), and 1.7 times as likely to have tried marijuana.

This "risk factor" was greater for unsupervised children regardless of sex, race, income, extracurricular activities, or school performance.

"There was no particular group that was protected from this effect,'' said Jean L. Richardson, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California and primary author of the study. She said the study shows that "we all need to be concerned" about unsupervised children.

Students who were left alone for shorter periods of time reported slightly lower levels of substance use. For those left unsupervised five to 10 hours per week (15.7 percent of those surveyed), the relative risk for alcohol was 1.7 times as likely; for tobacco, 1.6; and for marijuana, 1.5.

The study also found that latchkey children were more likely to come from affluent neighborhoods and to be white. Ms. Richardson said she thought more after-school programs and greater "parental monitoring" could help lower the rate of substance use among latchkey children.

The 8th-graders filled out the questionnaires themselves in a classroom. As a check on their answers, 2,185 parents also returned the surveys, and the answers were found to be similar.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.--mn

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