CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- About half of middle-school-age kids routinely spend time home alone after school, according to estimates. Those who do are much more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs, says a University of Illinois researcher, based on work in three Illinois communities.
In a survey of 636 fifth- through seventh-graders in both urban and rural communities, Peter Mulhall and his co-researchers found that "latchkey youth" -- defined as those home alone two or more days a week -- were three times more likely than their peers to say they had ever been drunk. Almost one in five, or 18.9 percent, said yes to that question, versus 5.9 percent among the other kids. They also were almost four times more likely to say they had been drunk in the past month: 9.1 percent versus 2.4.
The study, published in the Journal of Drug Education, turned up similar findings for other substances. The youth in the latchkey group were more than four times as likely to have used marijuana, 7.5 percent versus 1.6, and more than five times as likely to have used it in the past month, 4.5 percent versus 0.8. When asked about cigarettes, 14.1 percent in the latchkey group reported that they had smoked during the past month, compared with 6.3 percent among their other peers.
Mulhall thinks the reasons for the higher rates among these kids are fairly simple. First, they have more time away from parents or other adult supervision. As a result, they also are "more likely to be part of a stronger peer culture, and alcohol and drugs could be part of that," he said. Youth at that age are strongly influenced by the media and popular culture, where anti-drug messages have not been as strong in recent years, he added.
"I think a lot of people would be surprised at how much time kids spend unsupervised," Mulhall said. In his study, 383 of the 636 participants -- or more than 60 percent -- were in the unsupervised category. Among the participants living with a single parent, 69 percent were defined as latchkey; among kids living with both parents, the figure was still over half, or 56.1 percent. Among all participants, latchkey status jumped significantly between sixth and seventh grade, from 55.9 to 78 percent.
Mulhall said his conclusions should not be used to spread guilt among parents, especially since some have few options. He noted that there is likely to be little change in the trends that helped create the problem -- such as the increase in dual-career couples and single-parent families. For that reason, it should be recognized as a problem for communities, as well as families, to be solved mainly with more and better after-school programs for middle-school youth, he said.
The data for the latchkey study, published in March, was drawn from a larger 1993 survey for the university's Project Drug Free. Mulhall, the principal investigator, works in the university's Center for Prevention Research and Development. He co-wrote the article with Donald Stone, professor emeritus in the U. of I. department of community health, and Brian Stone, a professor at Wichita State University.