The term refers to the latchkey of a door to a house. The key is often strung around the child's neck or left hidden under a mat (or some other object) at the rear door to the property. The term is claimed to have originated from an NBC documentary in 1944, due to the phenomenon of children being left home alone becoming common during and after World War II, when one parent would be enlisted into the armed forces, so the other would get a job.
In the United States, a 2002 Census survey reported 5.8 million (15%) of all children between the ages of five and fourteen years living with a mother care for themselves an average of 6.3 hours per week and 65% of those children spent between 2-9 hours home alone. White non-Hispanic children are more likely to be left home alone than children of other races.
The effects of being a latchkey child differ with age. Loneliness, boredom and fear are most common for those younger than 10 years of age. In the early teens, there is a greater susceptibility to peer pressure resulting in alcohol abuse, smoking and sexual experimentation.
Socioeconomic status and length of time left alone can bring forth other negative effects. In one study, middle school students left home alone for more than three hours a day reported higher levels of behavioral problems, higher rates of depression and lower levels of self-esteem than other students.
Children from lower income families are associated with greater externalizing problems (such as conduct disorders and hyperactivity) and academic problems, while children from middle and upper income families are no different than their supervised peers. In 2000, a German PISA study found no significant differences in the scholastic performance between "latchkey kids" and kids in a "nuclear family".
The legality of the latchkey children's "alone time" varies with country, state and local area. In the United States, state and local laws typically do not specify any particular age under 18 when a child can be legally left without supervision. As a result, parents are often left without clear guidance as to when children may be allowed to remain at home without supervision. Parents can be held accountable by child welfare organizations or law enforcement if children come to harm while left without supervision if, in the opinion of the agency, the children's age or other considerations made such a choice inappropriate.
In 2003, this issue received attention in the United States when two children died in a New York apartment fire after being left home alone. Their mother, Kim Brathwaite, was a single mother who had left her children unsupervised when a babysitter failed to show up. Fearing the loss of her job, Brathwaite left the children, aged 9 and 1, alone while calling home regularly. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office brought charges of reckless endangerment against Ms. Brathwaite.
Some communities offer services through the police departments and community organizations to check-in on latchkey kids. Calls can be made by community organizations or by volunteers.
Automatic calling programs such as Call Reassurance call households during the week after children arrive home and require the child to answer the phone and positively acknowledge that they are OK. If the call is not answered, automatic calls can likewise be sent to the parents, police or other response centers.
This provides a single parent or two working parents peace of mind if no one is home when the child returns from school. If the child is missing, the parents and police can respond more quickly to this incident.