An estimated 3.5 million children between the ages of 5 and 12 are spending an average of an hour a day home alone after school, a new study shows. But that really isn’t that much, considering the “hectic, highly scheduled quality of contemporary family life,” according to the researcher who conducted it.
By examining “time diaries” kept in 1997 by a nationally representative sample of 1,500 children, University of Michigan researcher Susan L. Hofferth found that a vast majority of the children—73 percent—go straight home after school.
Another 11 percent go to child care, either to a provider’s home or a center. Eight percent stay at school, most likely involved in adult-supervised activities. And the remaining 8 percent go to a variety of other places, such as the mall, a park, or a parent’s place of employment.
Ms. Hofferth, a sociologist who works at the university’s Institute for Social Research, presented the results of her research last week in Chicago at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence.
Time Varies With Age
Of course, many of the children who go home after school do not wind up alone. Ms. Hofferth found that many parents are able to adjust their work schedules so someone is home when school is out, even in families without a full-time, stay-at-home parent.
Still, about 12 percent—or 3.5 million of the more than 31 million children in this age range—are by themselves, for periods ranging from an average of 47 minutes for 5- to 7-year-olds to an hour and 15 minutes for 11- and 12-year-olds. Another 2.5 percent spend time alone somewhere else.
The diaries also showed that children who have more highly educated mothers are more likely to spend time alone than those whose mothers have a high school education or less.
But children of higher-income parents are less likely to be by themselves than children whose parents have the lowest incomes. Ms. Hofferth concluded that this finding might be related to parents’ ability to afford after-school programs.
She noted that an important finding from the research shows that school-based activities, such as sports, are serving disadvantaged children more than those who come from wealthier families. Of all children participating in school-based programs, 69 percent were living in poverty.
One policy implication, Ms. Hofferth said, might be that schools should focus on developing recreation and other programs to serve older elementary school children.
A ‘Social-Policy Issue’
Beth M. Miller, the research director at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, based at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said that while Ms. Hofferth’s research doesn’t include older children, past surveys show that when 13- and 14-year- olds are added, the number of children spending time alone jumps to almost 8 million.
She said the real “social-policy issue” is youngsters who spend long periods by themselves. The problem is of greater concern for those who live in low-income neighborhoods, which typically present greater risks, Ms. Miller added. And when children begin spending time alone at a young age, she said, chances increase that they will get into trouble.
“Our concern is not kids in high-resource communities who aren’t getting enough down time,” she said.
In Ms. Hofferth’s research, the families’ responses indicated that parents do take into consideration children’s age and temperament when deciding whether to allow them to fend for themselves. Children who live in what parents consider to be “socially cohesive neighborhoods"—meaning that neighbors would do something if they saw children getting into trouble—were also more likely to spend time alone.
But Ms. Miller pointed out that parents who leave their children home alone may be reluctant to admit that they think their neighborhood is unsafe.
Too Much TV?
Of the children who go straight home after school, 26 percent of them said eating is the first thing they do, the new study shows. Nineteen percent said they engage in some type of personal-care activity, such as dressing or washing. Fifteen percent turn on the television right away, 13 percent do their homework, and 9 percent play.
Children devote by far the most time—100 minutes—to watching TV. An average of 74 minutes is spent playing, while children said they spend 60 minutes studying, 60 minutes involved in sports, 30 minutes doing household chores, 30 minutes reading, and 20 minutes having a conversation with someone else in the house.
This study by Ms. Hofferth follows one released in 1998, which showed that children were more involved in structured activities and had less free time than they had roughly 20 years earlier. (“Study Tracks How Children Spend Their Time,” Nov. 18, 1998.)
In future reports, Ms. Hofferth said, she will continue to examine the advantages and disadvantages of how children spend their time when not in school.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Students’ ‘Diaries’ Chart After-School Activities