Latchkey Kids: Definition, Effects & Statistics

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Latchkey Kids
  • 1:00 Statistics
  • 2:05 Effects
  • 3:40 Factors
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Peggy Olsen
With parents working, children are sometimes left alone for large amounts of time, especially before and after school and during school vacations. What effect does this have on the children? Find out more about latchkey kids and take a quiz to check your understanding.

Definition of Latchkey Kids

How do parents provide supervision for their school-age children when they work? School-age children are sometimes left alone before and after school regularly because parents are working or otherwise not supervising. These children are often referred to as latchkey kids, a term first used during the 1940s during WWII when women were working and men were deployed. 'Latchkey' refers to the key that children need to enter an empty house.

Latchkey kids are kids between the ages of 5 and 13 who take care of themselves with no adult supervision before and after school on a regular basis. The term self-care is also used to describe these children.

Although children from single-parent working families and lower-income children do spend time home alone, children from higher incomes actually spend more hours alone. Research indicates one reason for this could be that higher income neighborhoods might feel safer to parents.

Statistics

According to census data in 2011, over 4 million children were left without supervision for more than 6 hours every week on average. Because of government and grant-funded afterschool programs, these numbers have dropped dramatically. In 1995, it was estimated that 18% of elementary aged children went home to empty houses. Since after-school program legislation passed in 1998, that number has dropped in all categories. The percentage of children from single-parent families going home alone dropped from 24% to 14%, and children of married couples with both employed dropped from over 20% to about 15%. However, in 2009 budget challenges cut funding for many afterschool programs putting more children at risk of becoming latchkey kids.

As children get older, they are more likely to be latchkey kids. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 10% of students 4th grade and older spend a few hours home alone each day.

Effects

Unsupervised time can make children independent and sometimes can lead to challenges and negative outcomes. School performance tends to be lower in latchkey children. Some studies show the number of latchkey students doing poorly in school is as high as 51%. Children tend to go home and watch television rather than engage in more stimulating activities. Research by the National Educational Longitudinal Study found that the amount of television time could be predicted by the number of self-care hours. After-school programs have significantly improved school performance because they often provide homework help.

Drug use is higher among latchkey kids. Students unsupervised after school have a higher rate of trying drugs than those that are supervised. Research by the University of California and other universities found a relationship between the amount of self-care and drug abuse in 8th graders regardless of other factors, such as income and extracurricular activities. Research by Laurence Steinberg found that peer pressure, which can lead to drug use, was higher when students were in public places, like malls, rather than in homes, so students who hang out with their friends instead of going home are at greater risk.

Sexual activity is also higher when adolescents are not supervised after school. Research shows that unsupervised time at home is a predictor of sexual activity.

Latchkey children tend to be more obese perhaps because they tend to stay in the house when home alone instead of playing outside. In addition, they may be more likely to have an easy unhealthy snack instead of preparing a healthy snack after school.

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