Preventing Teenage Gambling Problems

Gambling is quite popular in our society, and children are exposed to the concept at early ages. There are many gambling advertisements on TV and social media that promote the idea that gambling is fun, exciting, and a way to get rich easily. Movies glorify gambling and show the “big win.” Many video games and apps allow children have gambling themes and content. The Internet offers thousands of online gambling websites, which young people can access at any time. Online gambling is often designed so that players win a lot in ‘practice mode’ luring them into believing their winning streak will keep going when they play with real money.

Many teens try out different games, including poker or other card games, dice, lottery tickets and scratch cards, and sports betting. Although the legal age for gambling is 18 years, some children start as young as 10 years, and the majority of youth report they have gambled by the age of 15. Between 60-80% of high school students have gambled for money. While the vast majority of teens will gamble only on occasion and just for fun, others have or will develop a serious problem that could impact their success in life. Boys are more likely than girls to develop a problem. Approximately 5% of youth already have a gambling problem, and another 10-14% of youth are at risk of developing a gambling addiction, which is defined by showing signs of losing control over their gambling behavior. Someone with a gambling addiction becomes preoccupied with gambling activities and neglects their responsibilities.

Signs of Social vs. Addictive Gambling

Parents should be aware of the difference between a teen who is enjoying recreational gambling and a teen who is developing a problem.

Signs of Social Gambling (not problem gambling):

  • Plays with a set amount of money, and when it’s gone, is done. No IOUs to friends.
  • Just wants to have fun, doesn’t get worried about the money.
  • Avoids high-stakes games with large pots.
  • May play regularly, but limits playing to once or twice a week, and does so only with friends. Still enjoys other activities.

Signs of Addictive Gambling (any one of these signs indicates a problem):

  • Likes the rush felt when gambling.
  • Makes desperate attempts to stay in the game by writing IOUs.
  • Really wants to win “the big one,” but will keep playing even when losing a great deal.
  • Plays online and has no qualms about using a credit card to gamble.
  • Begins to sell personal belongings.
  • Borrows money from friends and family and does not repay it.
  • Steals and lies.
  • Experiences dropping grades.
  • Has large amounts of cash that cannot be explained.
  • Has a great deal of debt that cannot be explained.
  • Withdraws from family, friends, regular social groups and/or activities.
  • Makes “900” number calls to gambling numbers.
  • Appears distracted and anxious; can be moody or depressed.
  • Unexplained absences from school or work.
  • Breaks curfew regularly.
  • Spends hours on online gaming sites, or seems preoccupied with gambling sites or TV poker.
  • Obsession with sports scores and/or odds instead of the sport itself.

Preventing Adolescent Gambling Problems

There are several things parents can do to prevent gambling from becoming a problem for their children:

Give the facts about gambling. If the only thing teens hear about gambling is from TV and social media, they will think it’s fun and a quick way to get rich. Parents need to explain the real odds of winning in an easy to understand manner. For example, you might share that their chance of winning the lottery is 1 in 15 million, while their chance of being hit by lightning is 1 in 300,000. It’s also important to explain that gambling companies are set up to make more money than they pay out to gamblers. In order for the companies to make money, the gamblers must lose more than they win.

Role model. Your family’s attitude – both actions and what you say – about gambling is a huge influence on your teen. If you don’t gamble, your teen will be more likely to avoid it as well. If you do choose to gamble, role modeling how to do it responsibly (avoiding high stakes games, having a set budget for the night, and never taking on debt) will also help prevent future problems.

Monitor teens who want to gamble. Parents can explain that social gambling on occasion can be fun, but there are consequences to becoming too preoccupied with it. Let your teen know that he or she is welcome to have friendly poker games at your home, and then step in if the pot becomes too big, or if the teenagers start writing each other IOUs.

Encourage positive extracurriculars. Teens turn to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors if they are bored. Helping your teen find a fun interest will prevent a host of problems, including gambling. If your teen has a passion already, encourage them to take it to the next level. Perhaps joining a club, working towards a competition, taking a more advanced class, etc. If your teen doesn’t have a strong passion, then spend time talking with them to discover what they’re interested in or what they might like to try. You could find out what other teenagers do by talking to other families, looking in the local paper or searching online. You could also ask your child’s school about its clubs and societies. Positive extracurriculars can reduce your teen’s boredom and stress, while allowing them to feel good about themselves, have fun, gain a sense of belonging, and let off steam.

Discuss healthy online behaviors. Another great way to help your teen make good decisions about online gambling and gaming is by talking about quality media choices overall, which should be an ongoing discussion in your home. It’s a great idea for everyone – children, teens, AND parents – to have a limit on screen time and rules that govern device use. If you and your teen can agree on family screen and internet use rules together, they will be more likely to cooperate with the family’s rules.

Final Thoughts…

If you are concerned your teen might be developing a gambling problem, please speak to their pediatrician or your family physician. They can offer advice as well as provide a referral to a therapist if needed. Another resource is the National Problem Gambling Helpline (1-800-522-4700), which is available 24/7 and is 100% confidential. This hotline connects callers to local health and government organizations that can assist with gambling addictions. Ultimately, there is no reason to be concerned if your teen occasionally gambles or tries it as a new experience. If you see more disturbing signs, as detailed above, try to get ahead of the issue. Gambling in childhood does increase the risk of gambling problems in adulthood.

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