Whether it’s participating in a family Super Bowl pool or a silly “I bet you can’t fit 10 Oreos in your mouth at once” dare, most teens have been involved in some type of “gambling.” While the majority can participate in gambling without issue, for some it can become a serious addiction with significant consequences.
How gambling begins
The National Council for Problem Gambling notes: “Between 60–80 percent of high school students report having gambled for money during the past year.” This includes wagering money on poker, sports, the lottery and a variety of other games.
Jim Wasserman, a retired economics teacher and writer, says, “Gambling starts well before kids are teens, usually around middle school. People tend to look at overt gambling [such as online sports sites], but it’s the contests and, worst of all, the card and game industry that are the entry points that can cause teens to develop gambling issues.”
For example, look at the way baseball or other trading card games are structured. Wasserman notes, “When my own sons were into Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards, they wanted to spend a lot to buy the bonus packs to get rare cards. When I explained that maybe 1 out of 10 packs would have a card that would make their deck better, one replied, ‘That just means we have to buy 100.’”
Don’t wait until kids are teens to have a conversation.
Tweens and teens are especially susceptible to the allure of gambling due to their developing brains, says Wasserman. “Psychologists will tell you that a tween experiences an early egoism as they try to figure out where they are in the world. They can’t help but wonder if they are ‘special,’” given the onset of puberty and the realization that people are different. Note how many middle-school and YA books are about a young person realizing he has strange, new powers [think: Harry Potter], and that it is their destiny to beat the odds.”
It’s easy to see how teens can be easily lured by the belief that gambling will result in easy money or the thrill associated with being deemed a “winner.” Wasserman explains, “When a company promises that ‘Many will enter, few will win’ — a phrase created to disguise true odds — every kid feels they are the Charlie who will somehow get the golden ticket to the chocolate factory.”
When gambling becomes a problem
Teens are attracted to gambling for some of the same reasons as adults — it’s fun and there is a chance to win money. Teens tend to enjoy risk-taking activities and perhaps think less about the consequences of those risks than adults. Mental health counselor Blake Williamson says, “Gambling can also be used as a coping mechanism for teens. It can be numbing and help them not to think about their problems.”
According to CRC Health, which provides programs and therapy services for the treatment of gambling addiction, teenage gambling is the fastest-rising addiction today, noting, “Dr. Jeremiah Weinstock of the University of Connecticut, an expert on teen gambling [believes] that between 4–7 percent of all teenagers suffer from a gambling addiction.” Boys are more likely to develop a gambling addiction than girls.
Williamson recalls a teenage client who became addicted to gambling. He stole money and credit cards from his family to support his addiction and cover his losses. Williamson says, “The teen’s father exposed him to gambling when he was 12 or 13 years old. At the time, the father was in denial about his own addiction. The father was treated, and later his son developed the same issues with gambling.”
Most states require gambling participants to be 21 years or older. But while casinos and other on-site gambling arenas strictly adhere to age restrictions, there are many other opportunities for teens to gamble. Especially troubling is the increase in online opportunities, which allow gambling at any time and anywhere there is internet access. It can be fairly simple for teens to gamble on these sites by lying about their age without parental approval.
Signs to watch for
Look out for the following warning signs of a gambling problem (or other addiction issues):
- Family history (addiction can run in families)
- Low mood or anxiety
- Signs of depression or withdrawal
- Missing money
- Lying, especially about where they are going
- Neglecting homework or other responsibilities, slipping grades
- Other addictions such as problems with alcohol and/or drugs
When it comes to preventing gambling issues, parents need to be good role models. Don’t wait until kids are teens to have a conversation. Discuss the risks of gambling with children from a young age. Don’t buy lottery tickets for underage kids or suggest the whole family play in a weekly bingo game. Williamson says, “If you engage in gambling, do so in moderation. For fun family betting, don’t use a monetary reward system. Instead, wager in a kid-friendly way, such as offering an extra hour of TV time for the winner.”
If parents suspect their teen has a gambling problem, reach out to the National Council on Problem Gambling, which offers a confidential, 24-hour helpline for problem gamblers or their family members at 1-800-522-4700. Parents can also contact Gam-Anon to locate a local chapter or seek advice from a mental help professional in their area.