Teenagers' After-School Time Needs Supervision, Says Carnegie Report

IT'S 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Do you know where most young American teenagers are?

Discretionary time - 40 percent of a youth's day - is largely spent watching television and other unsupervised activities, with only minutes devoted to parent-child interaction. And because of a lack of supervised after-school activity, as many as half of the nation's 4 million 10- to 15-year-olds are at serious or moderate risk of not reaching their full potential as adults.

Those findings are part of "A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours," a new report by the Task Force on Youth Development and Community Programs, part of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

The nation's decade-long obsession with education reform - aimed at reversing a steady decline in academic excellence and international competitiveness - is only part of broader social reforms necessary if youths are to get the attention they need, say experts on the task force.

The report calls for a serious injection of philosophical and financial support for community-based programs to take up the work of adolescent development no longer provided after school by parents.

The task force found that a broad range of youth services - including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, churches, museums, libraries, recreation departments, and organized sports - are available, but they are not widespread enough to reach those who need them most, nor are many of these services developed enough to meet the needs of today's youths.

Along with family and school, organized after-school programs should be considered an equally important part of youth development, says James Comer, the Yale University education reformer who co-chairs the task force.

"We're trying to reestablish in the context of a 21st-century scientific technological society the essential elements of community that existed naturally in an agricultural age and an early industrial age," Mr. Comer told the Monitor in an interview.

Supervised play and contact with adults used to happen, he says, in a "very natural, unsystematic way."

"You interacted with mature, responsible adults at church, in the neighborhood. You'd bump into five adults on the way to school who knew your parents. Even when you worked in sweat shops, you were working with adults who knew your parents or could act as surrogate parents and give you advice to help you understand the world," he says.

"When we became a highly mobile technology-driven society with all this information coming in on television, all this information that used to go through adults, all that broke down. So what you have is a situation where young people are receiving more information that's potentially destructive and harmful," Comer continues. "But they have less support for development to help them to act on this information appropriately."

The report, the first comprehensive study of community organizations serving adolescents, is a compendium of commissioned studies, focus groups with teens, and previous research.

The task force outlines a typical adolescent's waking hours this way: productive work such as school, jobs, study, and reading amounts to 37 percent; maintenance such as chores, personal care, and eating accounts for 21 percent; and discretionary time such as play, television watching, church attendance, and visiting totals 42 percent.

Research on youths themselves found that they were most likely to engage in dangerous or illegal activities during unsupervised after-school hours. This was found to the be most common time for adolescent sexual intercourse - usually at the boy's home while his parents are at work. Eighth graders who spent 11 or more hours a week unsupervised experienced twice the risk of substance abuse as those who were under some form of adult supervision.

The research also suggests the need to revitalize the existing youth-program network. About 30 percent of all 10- to 15-year-olds are not involved in any youth programs at all. Those who need them most - impoverished youths - are less likely to have the money to join or the transportation to get to youth programs. Three-quarters of all grass-roots youth organizations operate with an annual budget of less than $25,000 - so there is little opportunity to hire professional staff to run the programs.

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