Drug Use Seen Higher Among Latchkey Youth

Times Staff Writer

Latchkey children, whether from rich or poor families, are twice as likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana as those youngsters who are cared for by adults after school, according to a new USC study financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The study published today in the journal Pediatrics, is the largest to focus on adolescents who care for themselves after school, according to the researchers.

Based on a survey of 5,000 eighth-graders in Los Angeles and San Diego, the study found that those children who do not have adults to look after them for at least one hour per school day-- America’s so-called latchkey children--are at greater risk for substance abuse regardless of their sex, race, family income, academic performance, involvement in sports or other extracurricular activities.


“We assumed we would see some differences . . . for example, that the children of single-parent homes would be more likely than those in stable, two-parent families to be at risk for substance abuse. . . . But that does not seem to be the case,” said Jean L. Richardson, the study’s principal investigator and an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the USC School of Medicine.

Youngsters in all economic and social strata were at greater risk for drug, alcohol and cigarette use if they spent time on their own. And the longer they spent alone, the greater their risk, the study found.

Those children who spent 5 to 10 hours a week in “self care” were 1.7 times as likely as cared-for youngsters to use alcohol, 1.6 times as likely to smoke cigarettes and 1.5 times as likely to use marijuana. Those who spent 11 or more hours a week alone were twice as likely to use alcohol, 2.1 times as likely to smoke cigarettes and 1.7 times as likely to use marijuana.

More Anglos Than Latinos

The children who were left alone regularly were more likely to be Anglo, rather than Latino, probably because there tend to be more extended-family relationships among Latino groups. Surprisingly, the study found that children who were not being cared for by an adult were more likely to live in high-income areas than in low-income ones.

There are “clearly important public policy issues” raised by this study, Richardson said in an interview Tuesday. But, she added, the findings should in no way be construed to make mothers or fathers feel guilty that they are working, or that they should now stay home with their children.

“I don’t think that’s . . . realistic,” she said. “Women are working. Men are working. Both groups are going to continue to do so. I hope there is not a backlash as a result of this study. The appropriate question is how do you deal with the problem.”


One of the difficulties in knowing how to solve the potential problems of latchkey children is that the research does not make it clear precisely why adolescents who are not supervised are more susceptible to drugs and alcohol.

Influenced by Friends

Some of the youngsters who participated in the study said they had friends who smoked or drank and who presumably influenced them. But others said their exposure to alcohol and cigarettes was the result of solitary experimentation.

The study was based on anonymous questionnaires filled out by eighth-grade students in public schools in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and San Diego. Parents were also surveyed to validate children’s responses to questions about what arrangements, if any, had been made for the youngsters’ care.

There is no data to determine precisely the number of children who regularly care for themselves. But certainly the number of working mothers has grown dramatically--from less than 40% in 1970 to more than 60% in 1985. The divorce rate also has risen among certain groups.

With two out of three recent first marriages now ending in divorce, the likelihood that children will be left alone frequently continues to rise, experts say. Among all latchkey children, however, children of single parents are not necessarily more likely to use drugs.

Home to Empty Houses

By some estimates, more than 40% of children under the age of 13, somewhere between 2 million and 6 million youngsters, go home to an empty house after school.


“These estimates may be low because parents may be reluctant to admit that their children have no adult supervision,” Richardson wrote in the article.

Americans have long recoiled from the idea of leaving children--even those who were on the verge of adulthood--unattended. During the Depression, the term “latchkey” children was widely used to describe the many unfortunate young souls who went home alone, wearing house keys around the necks. In the 1950s, Dr. Benjamin Spock counseled mothers to consult a social worker before taking a job, because of the possible dire consequences for their children.

Whether such worries were justified is still not clear. The few studies of children who care for themselves have reached different conclusions concerning the risks and benefits involved. While one study found that children who care for themselves after school are more fearful and depressed, other studies have found no difference in measures of self-esteem or in academic performance of those who go home to mother or to an empty house.

Effective Parenting

Parenting styles, rather than the presence or absence of an adult, may have as much influence on the behavior of children as has anything else, according to another study. That study, done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, found that parents are more effective when they require children to perform specific chores after school, require the child to check in by telephone upon arriving home and set specific limits on where the child can and cannot go after school.