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'Latchkey' 8th Graders Likely To Possess Emotional 'Risk Factors,' Study Discloses

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"Latchkey children" are much more likely to be under stress, to be afraid when left alone, and to feel angry than children with more adult supervision, according to a new study. The University of Southern California study, reported in the September issue of Pediatrics, surveyed 4,852 8th-grade students in southern California. Of those, 67.8 percent reported caring for themselves after school for at least an hour each week.

Those children were twice as likely to be under stress, to feel in conflict with their families, to call themselves risk-takers, and to say their parents were absent too much, the study said.They were also 1.8 times more likely to go to parties, 1.7 times more likely to feel angry, 1.5 times more likely to skip school, and 1.5 times more likely to be afraid when alone.

All of those emotional factors make latchkey children more prone to alcohol and drug abuse, said Jean L. Richardson, associate professor of preventive medicine at USC and a primary author of the study.0

Ms. Richardson noted, however,that not all those traits are always bad. Some could be positive, she said, adding that going to parties and taking risks could measure independence and social adjustment. But for that age group, she added,such behaviors are more likely to be predictors of substance abuse.

Last September, using the same 8th-grade sample, the same researchers found that children who cared for themselves were twice as likely to drink alcohol or smoke, and nearly twice as likely to use marijuana as their more supervised peers. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1989.)

The emotional risk factors were generally the same for unsupervised children regardless of sex, race, or income. White children and wealthier children are most likely to go unsupervised, the study showed.

About 75.5 percent of white children surveyed said they spent at least one hour a week without adult supervision. In contrast, 60.6 percent of the Hispanic students surveyed said they go unsupervised.

Of the survey sample, 70.8 percent of high-income children fell into the"latchkey" category, while only 63.6 percent of low-income children did. Researchers were quick to point out that they are not suggesting a parent needs to stay home. Economically, they said, that is not an option for many families.

But Ms. Richardson said the study clearly showed a lack of after-school child-care options for adolescents.

"Adolescents fall through the child- care cracks," she said. "They are too young to be on their own and too old for existing child-care programs."

She suggested that youth organizations and volunteer activities could fill the cracks and keep unsupervised children busy and productive.

Researchers also broke down the survey group into those who started taking care of themselves during junior high school and those who start ed during elementary school. They found that an early start increased emotional risks in two categories: risk-taking and attending parties.

Those who started taking care of themselves in elementary school were 2.5 times more likely to take risks than their supervised counter parts. Those who started in junior high were 1.6 times more likely.

Those who started taking care of themselves earlier were 2.3 times more likely to go to parties. Those who started later were 1.4 times more likely.

The study also showed that an earlier start significantly raises the risk of alcohol use. Children who went unsupervised in elementary school were 2.7 times more likely to use alcohol then supervised children. Those who started taking care of themselves in junior high were 1.9 times more likely to drink.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse..

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