School Time, 2001a). A variety of factors, including rising child care costs, increased work hours, welfare reform, and the limited availability of good programs may account for the large number of children left alone during nonschool hours.
Being alone during nonschool hours invites problems. This is not a new thought: recall the adage: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Filling empty hours, of course, can be overdone, and there is merit in offering young people unhurried blocks of time to think, play, have fun, talk to parents and friends, and even read for pleasure. However, there is evidence that teens left alone during nonschool hours are more likely to engage in sexual intercourse, alcohol or drug abuse, smoking, violence, and gang-related behavior (Zill et al., 1995). Others simply use this unstructured time to play video games. Some experience fear and anxiety when left at home by themselves.
A study of 5,000 8th grade students in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas found that children left home alone, regardless of race, sex, or economic status, are more likely to drink alcohol or take drugs than children who are supervised by a parent or another adult. And the more hours they were left by themselves, the greater their risk (Richardson et al., 1989). Similar results have been reported by Marshall et al. (1997) and the YMCA (2001).
There is also evidence that participation in “constructive learning activities” during nonschool hours may predict success or failure in school. Reginald Clark’s work (1983, 1988) suggests that participating in such activities as leisure reading and writing, music, chores, homework, or problem-solving games creates opportunities for young people to enhance their cognitive skills and extend their learning. In contrast, young people who do not have the opportunity to participate in these kinds of activities or who engage in excessive hours of unstructured activities (e.g., television, video games, hanging out with friends) tend to underachieve in school.
What these data mean in the context of this report is that a significant number of young people—particularly those who are poor and live in high-risk neighborhoods—are in particular need of support. Such youth are disproportionately likely to be members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Community programs for youth are being looked on as one way to redress the social inequities that currently confront America.