Substance Abuse Risks Higher Among Latchkey Children
Children who return to an empty house at the end of every school day are twice as likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana than those who come home to a parent. What's more, the risk cuts across all demographic lines—race, sex, income, and even family composition. The odds are no better for a two-parent household than for families headed by a single parent. These findings were reported in a recent comprehensive study of more than 5,000 California 8th graders.
"What surprised me was that the risk ratio was so consistent," says principal investigator Jean Richardson, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.
According to the study, reported in the journal Pediatrics, 29 percent of the children were left alone after school for 11 hours or more every week; 16 percent for 5 to 10 hours; and 24 percent for 1 to 4 hours. Only 32 percent reported going home to a parent.
Of the children who were alone the most--11 hours or more per week-- 23 percent reported having consumed 11 or more full alcoholic drinks in their lifetime; 13 percent said they had smoked a pack or more of cigarettes; and 24 percent said they had tried marijuana.
Among children who were supervised by a parent after school, the risks were nearly half: alcohol, 11 percent; cigarettes, 6 percent; and marijuana, 14 percent.
Of particular concern are children who might be regarded as risk-takers—those who perceive themselves as much older than they are, and who want to do things that parents believe children should not do. "They'll say things like, 'I don't want to live several more years before I can do the things that suit me,'' says Richardson. "If left alone, with that kind of approach to life, these children are definitely at more risk.''
The statistics bolster her concern: By 8th grade, for example, 33 percent of the children who fit into the risktaking category have already developed more than a passing interest in alcohol.
On the other hand, nearly 80 percent of the so-called "latchkey'' children in this study apparently have no substance-abuse problem. "From a problem-solving point of view, that's really important,'' says Richardson. "There are a whole lot of families where things are working out fine, and we need to learn from them.''
Vol. 01, Issue 03, Page 34