Children should be at least 12 years of age before being left home alone, a survey of social workers has suggested.
Deciding when is the appropriate time to leave your child at home for the first time can be tricky for parents, but a new poll of social workers has revealed that the majority believe kids should have hit their 12th birthday before being left along for four hours or longer.
What’s more social workers are more likely to consider a ‘home alone’ scenario as neglect if a child is injured while left unsupervised.
Researchers surveyed 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in the US.
They provided scenario conditions through an emailed survey in which a child of varying age was left home alone for four hours.
The scenarios also varied by whether the child had been injured or not when left at home alone, and if there were a relevant ‘home alone’ laws.
Unsurprisingly, in cases where a child was not injured, nearly every social worker determined that leaving a child home alone for four hours was child neglect when the child was six-years-old or younger.
More than four out of five social workers said it was neglect if the child was eight or younger with about half stating it was child neglect if the child was 10 or younger.
But a lower proportion described the scenario as child neglect when a child was aged 12 to 14.
When the scenarios included the conditions where a law made it illegal to leave a child at home alone or a child was injured, social workers were “significantly more” likely to consider it a case of child neglect at eight, 10, 12 and 14 years of age.
When the social workers were asked at what age should it be illegal to leave a child alone for four hours, more than half said it should be illegal for children under 12 years of age and four out of five agreed it should be illegal for children under 10.
Commenting on the findings Professor Charles Jennissen, of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said: “We found that social workers who participated in the study were significantly more likely to consider it child neglect when a child was left home alone if the child had suffered an injury, as compared to when they did not.
“The level of neglect is really the same whether a child knowingly left home alone is injured or not, and such situations should be handled the same by child protective investigators.”
The research team said that their findings suggest the need for uniform guidelines and safety laws related to childhood supervision nationally, to direct social workers in their evaluation of potential cases of child neglect and to better protect children.
Prof Jennisen is due to present the findings at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference next week.
When can children legally be left alone in the UK?
While this research was US based, in the UK, there are currently no UK laws dictating an age at which children can be left home alone meaning the decision is left solely in the hands of the parent or guardian.
A Government website encourages parents to use their judgement before leaving children alone or in a car.
But the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) advises that babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left unsupervised – adding that children under the age of 12 “are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency” therefore should not be left home alone for a long period of time.
The NSPCC also stresses that although children under the age of 16 may be ok left home alone during the day, they should not be left unsupervised overnight.
Despite being somewhat of a grey area, the government website points out that
parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health.”
The topic of leaving children at home on their own is certainly a divisive one.
Earlier this year the NSPCC issued a statement to parents urging parents to think carefully before leaving their children home alone.
The request came after the charity reported a 21% rise in correspondence about children being left unsupervised during the summer holidays last year.
“Leaving your child home alone can be a difficult decision as children mature at different ages – there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer,” Louise Exon explains.
"Parents are best placed to know what is right for their child so it’s vital there is flexibility for them to decide, but we would urge them to think carefully and use their common sense when deciding if their child could cope.”
Parents clearly aren’t sure about the rights and wrongs of leaving a child home alone.
Earlier this year a mum took to Mumsnet to ask fellow parents at what age it is appropriate to leave her child at home alone and the question swiftly split opinions.
A further debate was triggered in June after a woman questioned if she could leave her 11-year-old child to look after their nine-year-old sibling unsupervised while she popped to the gym.
What do you think? How young is too young for a child to be left home alone?
Additional reporting SWNS