Teens and gambling

Young teens are getting the message that gambling is harmless fun. Too bad it's the wrong message

Brett Dawson* always loved sports, so he knew which teams to bet on when his parents bought him a Pro-Line lottery ticket. That first time, the Winnipeg teen won $350. Within two days, he’d won $1,000. “He lost it fairly quickly, and we hoped that would show him,” says his mom, Rita Dawson.* “But he was already hooked.”

Brett, 16 at the time, progressed from spending all his Christmas money to stealing from his parents and other family members. “At first, I’m thinking I miscounted what was in my wallet,” Rita says. “It takes a while to believe it’s happening.”

Gambling has become a big part of modern North American culture and for some kids like Brett Dawson, the temptation is irresistible.

“This is the first generation to be exposed to widespread legalized gambling,” says Jennifer Reynolds, manager of the youth gambling research project at the Canadian site youthbet.net. Television and the Internet bring images of celebrity poker and online slot machines into living rooms and bedrooms. Governments promote lotteries and casino games. Sports betting and instant-win lotteries are often seen as harmless diversions, and tickets are easy for kids to get. While laws in most provinces restrict gambling, including lottery tickets, to adults 18 and up, retailers don’t always check ID and well-meaning relatives may give scratch tickets as gifts.

*Names changed by request.
A study done by Youth Gambling International (YGI), a research centre based at McGill University in Montreal, says that up to 80 percent of youth aged 14 to 18 have tried gambling at least once, making it more prevalent than alcohol consumption or smoking.

Most tweens and teens don’t have access to credit cards, so it’s harder for them to gamble online, but not impossible. Kids can use sites like PayPal, or access online bank accounts. There are also practice gambling sites that use points and prizes; young participants may get hooked on these and then move on to gambling for money. And recently, Facebook has been used by teens to find like-minded individuals to gamble with in person.

So what’s the harm? While many kids experiment with gambling, most won’t end up with a problem. Of those who do try it, however, 10 to 15 percent are at risk of developing an addiction. The prevalence of pathological gambling in young people is two to four times higher than in the adult population. And when it hits, addiction can bring truancy, lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression — not to mention the stealing and lying Brett Dawson’s family endured. Young gambling addicts are also likely to seek out other risky activities such as drug use.

The big draw
The primary reasons teens gamble are excitement and enjoyment, with the aim of winning money coming in third, according to YGI studies. For some kids, the lure of risk is irresistible, whether it’s a 10-year-old betting a friend on what a teacher will wear the next day, or a 14-year-old staking his Nintendo DS on a poker hand. With larger disposable incomes than ever before, today’s teens can often finance their own gambling, at least for a while. Online gaming fits with behaviour they’re already engaging in; VLTs or online poker becomes just another video game, only with prizes.

Young teens also think they are invincible. Farah Lorimer is a presenter with the Problem Gambling Resources Network in Alberta who often talks to high school students. “Their eyes roll when I start out,” she says. “Their understanding of addiction is limited, and they believe people should be able to control how far they go.” However, once she draws connections to the students’ own behaviour — such as spending 10 or 15 hours a weekend on video games — “they start to see how anything enjoyable can become addictive.”

The inherent attractions of gambling amplify the message teens are getting from the media and society at large. “Gambling is sold as a socially acceptable form of entertainment,” says psychologist Jeffery Derevensky, co-director at YGI (which is formally known as the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours). While every province has laws concerning how it can be advertised, the promotion techniques often appeal to the younger crowd. “They like the humour, the Cash for Life guy going, Faaaaan-tastic!, for instance,” says Reynolds. Kids particularly respond to the anti-authoritarian message of some lottery advertising. “If you win, you can quit your job and no one can tell you what to do.”

Drawing a line
Barbara Kipling,* mother of a 14-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, is often frustrated at her kids’ attraction to gaming and related activities. “There’s only so much we can control,” says the Penticton, BC, mom. “They use computers outside of the house. Pogo (a popular website) has all the games and you don’t need parents’ permission to play.” Pogo features hundreds of games, including multiple forms of poker and blackjack, as well as online slot machines. Both kids enjoy getting scratch tickets as occasional gifts from their grandparents. And Kipling’s son recently won a curling tournament for children 18 and under — and his prize was a poker set. “I made him exchange it at the store for something I felt was age-appropriate,” she says.

To some, Kipling’s concern might seem extreme — but not to Derevensky. Research shows that most problem gamblers started as early as nine or 10 years old and they started gambling at home. Parents might buy their kids lottery tickets, start “friendly” games of cards or place bets on a sporting event. As Derevensky puts it: “You likely wouldn’t be drinking with your nine-year-old, so why would you gamble with them or make it possible for them to do so?”

Stephen Soucie, an 18-year-old in Ontario, started a Facebook group for a school project to educate people about the risks of gambling as a teen. “Problem gambling itself doesn’t receive enough attention, so teen gambling is talked about even less,” he says. Soucie draws a line between low-risk and problematic. “My friends and I play poker about once a month, but there’s almost never money bet,” he says. “It’s more about spending time with my friends than trying to win anything.” On his Facebook group, his introduction reads: “…when gambling starts to affect your social, school, personal or work life, then maybe it’s time to step back from the situation and ask someone for help.

*Names changed by request.

Evening the odds
So what can parents do to protect their tweens and teens from the addictive potential of gambling? The most important step is discussing it openly; commercials and TV shows with gambling storylines can be a good starting point.

“Parents need to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy gambling, and educate themselves about the risks,” says Reynolds. Gambling can be healthy when it’s just another recreational activity for a person who has a wide range of interests, when it’s easy to stop, and when losing is disappointing but not the end of the world.

Teens — and some adults — also need to know that the industry is designed to make money, not give it away. “How can people be winning in Alberta when in 2005 the government’s gaming revenue was $21 billion?” says Lorimer.

If you think your teen is at risk for a gambling problem (see Could your teen be at risk?), contact a professional. Call a problem gambling helpline (do an Internet search for “problem gambling” and your province) or look to local youth service organizations. Kids can contact Kids Help Phone (kidshelpphone.ca). And don’t forget to seek help for yourself too.

Since Brett Dawson got hooked on gambling, his family has endured the emotional roller coaster that typically comes with addiction. “He messed up his last year of school, stole from and lost friends; there’s no trust there at all,” says Rita Dawson. Now 19, Brett is still struggling with his addiction. As his mother puts it: “People see drugs as dangerous and try to scare their kids off, but we need to stop our kids from doing this too, if we can.”

Could your teen be at risk?
Here are some signs that your child could be developing a gambling problem; many of them are similar to signs of other addictions:

• money missing or unaccounted for — either yours or your teen’s
• borrowing money repeatedly for no apparent reason
• valuables disappearing
• incidents of lying and stealing
• paying close attention to sports standings
• increased time online
• changes in sleeping or eating patterns or academic performance
• withdrawal from family and friends, or personality changes
• reports from friends — one Facebook group was formed as an online petition by teens to get their friend to give up gambling