Youth Increasingly at Risk for Gambling Problems

Youth gambling is a growing problem in the U.S. (Photo courtesy Flickr user Adrian Sampson licensed via Creative Commons)
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May 9, 2014 - 5:30am

Dr. Jeffrey L. Derevensky is a professor of School/Applied Child Psychology and Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and an expert on youth gambling addiction. He spoke with NET News about why youth gambling is such a problem.

When most of us think of gambling, we may think of casinos or online card games. What kinds of activities constitute gambling, or involve some aspect of gambling?

There are a wide variety of activities that constitute gambling. In essence what one is doing is risking money in order to potentially win more money. The accessibility and adaptability of young people today really dictates the type of gambling that they’re engaged in. So depending upon what might be available in a given jurisdiction, what kinds of age restrictions there are, that will often dictate what kind of gambling they get involved in. We know they often play the lottery and tend not to like to use the draw games but rather the scratch cards. And we’ve done a number of studies that show what makes a scratch card interesting is whether or not the child is familiar with the game, the number of things they could scratch and the colors that are involved in those tickets. But eventually they move up. Card games are also very popular today, especially poker. But children will wager on a wide variety of things, even among themselves. Who can get a higher score on a Wii game, or an Xbox. As they get older they’re much more likely to be enticed to go into a casino and play a casino type game to win some money, for the enjoyment as well as the excitement it brings along with the gambling activity.

How big of a problem is this in the U.S.?

Within the U.S., between 60 and 80 percent of youth are gambling, or have gambled during their lifetime. And these are all underage gamblers, between 9 and 18 years of age. Less children will actually gamble on a weekly basis, approximately 30 percent. But when we look at problem gambling, what we’re finding is that there are actually more young people who have gambling problems than adults. And part of that is how we define a gambling problem, it’s not just how much money you will lose but the behaviors that go along with those gambling problems. Overall in the U.S., the estimates are anywhere from 2 to about 4 to 5 percent of underage youth, adolescents, seem to be exhibiting some pretty significant gambling-related problems. We also know this is much more common among males than it is among females.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Derevensky is a professor of School/Applied Child Psychology and Psychiatry and co-director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  (Courtesy Photo)

What is it about youth or teens that make them especially at risk for these kinds of behaviors?

Gambling has become normalized in our society. It’s no longer necessarily associated with sin and vice. Our governments operate gambling through state lotteries, casinos are now viewed very positively by a large percentage of the adult population as well as younger individuals. But we know that the two main reasons children like to gamble is for the enjoyment it brings and the excitement. The fact that they can also win some money is also a very powerful inducement and entices young people to gamble because they have very few ways of making money.

Isn’t there something in the research that has shown that the same type of brain development that makes young people feel invincible can come into play here, thinking they will continue to win even when they’re at a casino when they get older?

Yes, there’s no doubt that young people view themselves as smarter than the adults, that they’re invincible, that they’re able to continue to gamble having practiced on things like the Wii and Xbox and online games, social media casino games that sometimes have distorted pay out rates. If you go on some of these sites, as one of my colleagues recently found, he was on it for two days playing a slot machine and couldn’t lose. We know that’s not realistic. But young people think they’ve developed the necessary skills and so it’s a natural convergence to try and do that for real money.

How has mobile technology like tablets or smartphones changed or aggravated this problem?

This is going to be the fastest growing segment of the gambling market, where people will be able to gamble online via smartphone or tablet. And as more and more states in the U.S. adopt Internet wagering, it becomes harder and harder to track individuals. If my daughter has a smartphone, it’s registered under my name. If someone does a check to ensure I’m above the legal age, that's not a problem. Yet she has her own cell phone but I pay the bills. And what we’re starting to see is more social casino games, where you can play simulated forms of gambling right on your phone or tablet or computer. And we’re noticing that with these, children become fairly proficient. They’re designed to teach individuals how to play the game, to enjoy the game, but they also have distorted pay out rates. So they feel very confident, they’re very proficient in gambling, and as a result are much more likely to want to try both online gambling and land-based gambling.

What impacts have you seen in the lives of youth who are addicted to gambling? Are they serious?

Individuals who have gambling problems have a wide variety of social problems, personal problems, academic problems, mental health problems and obviously financial problems that go along with gambling problem. When it gets really problematic: pathological gambling, compulsive gambling, distorted gambling, what we’re starting to see that children, adolescents and young adults will spend much of their time gambling. When they’re gambling they can’t do other things: socialize with friends or focus on their school work. As a result, their friends tend to disappear and they wind up having more and more difficulties academically.

Local and National Gambling Help Resources:

Gamblers Anonymous

Lincoln Hotline Number: (402) 473-7933
Omaha Hotline Number: (402) 978-7557

National Problem Gambling Helpline


Nebraska Council on Compulsive Gambling

Professional counseling and self test

What about impacts to society at large?

This is an enormous experiment and we’ve yet to understand what the impact will be. Gambling is changing dramatically. It’s gone from just merely lotteries and land-based casinos to more local venues where you can play electronic gambling machines to where you’ll be able to go online and gamble via the internet. Gambling problems are not what physiologists call single-trial learning. You don’t become a problem gambler the first time you gamble, it takes quite a while. Research shows that from the onset of gambling to problem gambling often takes between 5 to 7 years. So we’re not going to see the true impact of all these technological advances on gambling for the next few years.

What recommendations do you have for youth or parents of youth who think they might be addicted?

For the individual who may think he or she may have a gambling problem, throughout the U.S. there are a variety of hotline numbers in order to seek some help. But one of the important things is for parents to recognize that problem gambling can actually impact their adolescent child as well. And in our school systems virtually across the U.S., very few places have prevention programs. The same way we have prevention programs for drinking and driving, for protected sex, for substance abuse, we really need to start educating our young people what the warning signs are, the risk signs for what constitutes a gambling problem. When we asked parents in a national study in Canada (you’d find the same thing in the U.S.), we gave them 13 potential adolescent risky behaviors: drug use, bullying, etc., gambling comes in dead last. And yet we do know the prevalence rate and impact upon not only the individual but the family can be devastating.  

Watch NET Television's program "Growing Up Gambling" for more information on these issues.  It will air several times throughout the month on NET1 and NET2 World.  You can also watch the program on our website by clicking here.



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