Much like Liverpool’s inability to win the Premier League, underage gambling is an often misunderstood and underestimated problem. Consider that a UK Gambling Commission study from 2019 found that 11% of the interviewed kids between the age of 11 and 16 had wagered their own money on some form of gambling during the past week.
To put it into perspective, that’s a potential 400,000 young people across the UK gambling on a regular basis. With the expansion of the gambling industry to new mediums such as the internet and video games, our kids are exposed to more gambling risks than ever.
To make things worse, some of these mechanisms are cleverly disguised, while others are not even officially recognised as gambling. This makes it difficult to gauge just how much of an impact they’re having on youth gambling statistics these days.
So, how do kids start gambling? Why are children and adolescents especially vulnerable to gambling addictions? What are the signs parents should watch out for? And can proper education help prevent addiction? For answers to these questions and more, read on.
How Are Children Introduced to Gambling?
First off, let’s clear up a common misconception. Gambling is not just limited to casinos, whether they are online or brick-and-mortar joints. Nor is it just a problem with the National Lottery, which, unlike casinos, is open to anyone 16 or older. Gambling can also include private wagers, card games for money, and online games with gambling-like mechanisms such as loot boxes.
Knowing that the legal casino age in the UK is 18 means little when you consider that all the methods above are freely available to children of all ages, and some are even promoted through the media, peers, or family members.
For example, the same study quoted above found that 67% of kids are with their parents when they gamble and 69% have been exposed to gambling advertisements in the past.
The Role of the Family
The impact of the child’s immediate surroundings cannot be overstated. While friends and peers can have an impact later in life, for most young adults and older children gambling today, the problem started within their extended family when they were younger.
Kids will see their parents playing card games with relatives and friends. They’ll watch their uncle punting on greyhound races or their dad placing a bet on Newcastle scoring in the first half. Their aunt will buy them a scratch card or they’ll watch their mum playing Lotto. When this behaviour becomes normalised, it’s no surprise that the child will eventually want to join in.
A mix of natural curiosity and desire to fit in, the thrill and excitement they perceive in adults around them who gamble, and a lack of deeper understanding of the long-term consequences of such behavioural patterns can all form the basis of gambling addiction.
While it might start in the family, a budding addiction can flourish given the right external factors.
Other kids at school are perhaps the most obvious source of bad influences, but we also can’t ignore the prevalence of gambling venues on the street and sports betting advertisements in all forms of media and entertainment. After all, your kids can’t watch a footie game these days without spotting at least one ad for a bookie.
But perhaps the worst offenders, as innocuous as they might seem at first glance, are mobile and online games that use gambling mechanisms. While underage gambling laws are there to protect children from traditional casinos, the same methods are harder to quantify and regulate when they’re applied in video games. But they can be just as dangerous.
Let’s start by looking at actual gambling games like Slotomania and Zynga Poker, which function pretty much exactly like their real world counterparts; the only difference is that no real money is involved. This means that not only can those games be targeted at children, but they’re often actively promoted on social networks such as Facebook.
The odds in such games are often fixed so that wins are much more common than they would be in the equivalent casino games. This gets kids hooked on the euphoria of winning with none of the real life consequences of losing. It’s basically a gateway drug to gambling.
Unfortunately, underage gambling online doesn’t stop with these games. Much less obvious, but perhaps just as insidiously effective, is the relatively new practice of adding loot boxes to video games. In essence, loot boxes allow you to trade real world money for a chance at getting a random item, character skin, or bonus from a randomized pool of rewards.
What does that remind you of? If you ask Belgium, the answer is clear: the country banned the use of lootboxes in all games sold there several years ago, and many governments around the world are actively considering following suit. For now, though, this predatory practice remains one of the strongest unregulated gambling mechanisms around.
Dangers of underage gambling
So, temptation is everywhere. But it’s just kids, right? And they’re not even playing with real money, most of the time. What’s the worst that can happen?
Here’s the thing; several studies have shown that kids exposed to gambling have a much higher chance of developing crippling gambling addictions later in life. Furthermore, a study led by an international team of scientists at the Imperial College of London found that being addicted to gambling activates the same neural pathways as being addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Our brain typically doesn’t fully develop until we are well out of our formative teenage years. The legal gambling age in the UK is 18, but even at that age our nucleus accumbens is not yet fully developed. This is the part of the brain that handles how much we are willing to work for a reward, and also registers achievements and pleasure.
As we grow older and our cerebral cortex becomes more developed, we tend to start using our prefrontal cortex more than the amygdala, leading to less impulsive and more measured, logical decisions. This is also why you find young people routinely doing stupid and immature things and acting impulsively more often than adults.
Does this mean that they’ll just grow out of it? Unfortunately, no. The real dangers of teen gambling lie in the lasting effects exposure to gambling mechanisms can have on their developing brains.
As young people start facing increasingly more difficult challenges in life, those who have developed mechanisms for easy gratification find it hard to let go of low-effort, high-endorphin activities such as gambling.
There is also evidence that young adult gamblers who start early are more likely to develop drug or alcohol addictions in the future. The problem can also affect emotional development, causing problems with forming relationships later in life. Trust issues, financial difficulties, the ability to focus on a job – all of these factors come into play when dealing with a gambling addiction.
In short, the consequences of underage gambling are long-lasting and very difficult to deal with if the problem is left unchecked for too long.
So, how can we recognise gambling addiction in children and act before it’s too late? Well, the first step is diagnosing the problem. In order to do that, we must be able to notice the warning signs of a potential addiction on time.
Signs of Underage Gambling
The main issue with identifying a gambling problem in children and young adults is that they will typically try much harder to hide it than an adult would. Another problem is the wealth of gambling-like activities that are freely available even to children and aren’t easy for parents to detect.
Gambling laws in the UK are still unclear on how to regulate online casinos, casino-like games on social networks, and other new forms of gambling on the internet.
It used to be that you’d need to physically go to a casino or sports bookie to gamble. You’d sit down, have a pint, browse through those obscure footie leagues from Asia, or throw down some chips at the roulette table. Sooner or later, everyone would know where you were going and what you were doing.
These days, hiding your gambling habits from family and friends can be as easy as deleting your browser history.
Underage online gambling is not the only issue, however. Even if you keep thorough tabs on your child’s internet use, they can still place bets at school, play card games for money, or get involved in many other gambling-like activities when they’re not supervised by adults.
Nevertheless, there are some signs you should always keep an eye out for. Some are obvious, others perhaps less so. Let’s look at three of the most common ones.
Sudden Behavioural or Personality Changes
Has the adolescent started behaving differently? Are they more secretive, defensive, or even aggressive about their activities? Have they suddenly become more competitive or interested in money and material possessions?
Underage gambling statistics show that fresh gambling addicts may also lose interest in other activities in or outside school that they previously enjoyed, such as playing sports or music. They may also become forgetful of important dates or commitments. Speaking of school-related activities, let’s move on to the next telltale sign of potential gambling addiction.
Unexplained School Absences or a Drop In School Grades
Remember that in severe cases, the effects of a gambling problem are very similar to those of a drug or alcohol addiction. Those starting to get addicted might begin to neglect or downright ignore other activities in the search of their next gambling-induced adrenaline rush.
Underage gambling in the UK is really not much different than a standard gambling problem in this regard. Just as you can expect adults with a crippling addiction to become less interested in their work and more and more unreliable in personal relationships, the same general concept applies to adolescents as well.
Unfortunately, it can be even harder for children and adolescents to fight the compulsion to gamble at the expense of all other activities, as their brain is not yet fully developed and they are much more prone to irrational, impulsive behaviour.
Money and Possessions
One of the more obvious signs of kids gambling underage is that they suddenly start borrowing or stealing money. Credit cards are easy enough to track if you have suspicions, but with cash, you may not always realise where or why your money has disappeared. Alternatively, they may suddenly have more money or material possessions whose origin they can’t explain.
Most kids are smart enough to try and hide such things from their parents. However, some might even boast about their successes and openly speak of their newfound fondness for card games or express interest in newspapers or magazines showing sports results and odds.
After all, gambling advertisements can be found all around us, from TV shows and billboards to online platforms.
There are certainly other telltale behaviours; some children or young adults may even openly talk about their newfound fondness for games of chance. But let’s now talk about what can be done about the issue, and how proper education about the inherent dangers of gambling can help avoid the problem occurring in the first place.
Education and Prevention
Recognising the signs of a budding gambling addiction is a good first step. But how can you deal with the problem when it’s already too late for prevention?
Roughly speaking, we can approach this problem from two angles: concrete actions that will limit a child’s access to gambling opportunities (like how state gambling regulations try to address the problem) and a psychological approach, which should ideally deal with the problem at its core before it develops too far.
That said, most parents facing youth gambling addiction will likely have to employ a mix of both methods at some point.
The Psychological Approach
In an ideal world, talking can resolve everything, and a parent will hopefully not be forced to take more extreme measures.
Educate your children on how the process of gambling really works and just how miniscule the chances of actually turning a profit are. Trying to tell them that they shouldn’t take a risk because they’re below the gambling age in the UK will likely be far less effective than simply illustrating how little chance they actually have of winning.
Explain to them how gambling for actual money works. Then compare that to the user-friendly odds on non-monetised games like Slotomania, which are designed to lure them in and stimulate their gambling addiction. Speak frankly about the risks of gambling addiction and show them proof of how seasoned gamblers face similar psychological problems to drug or alcohol addicts.
Most importantly, teach them how to enjoy sports or card games without placing bets or involving money at all. Help them understand that underage gambling is a serious issue and emphasise the importance of recognising it not just in themselves, but also in others.
Finally, remind them of all the things they could afford if they weren’t wagering money.
The Authoritarian Approach
Sometimes, when words fail, you need to put your foot down and make sure your children are physically unable to indulge their gambling addiction. While this is less effective in the long term than the psychological approach, sometimes it’s the only solution available.
If you catch your teen gambling online, installing software to block or monitor gambling sites can work as a temporary solution. Restricting access to the internet can also help, as can making sure children spend as little time as possible alone on the internet.
Family activities, chores, socialising with friends or family members… all of these can help keep an adolescent’s mind away from gambling. Monitoring your wallet and credit cards more carefully also means you’ll be alerted early on if something out of the ordinary is going on.
At the end of the day, you ideally want to avoid having to take these most restrictive measures. After all, the appeal of adolescent gambling can grow even greater if this forbidden passion isn’t also treated with an earnest psychological approach.
Final Thoughts on Underage Gambling
Youth and adolescent gambling is a serious danger to both those involved and the people around them. Children exposed to gambling at a young age are up to 300% more likely to develop a gambling addiction, which will be much harder to address later in life.
Learn how to spot the early signs and how to address the problem properly. Do not underestimate the long-term consequences of seemingly benign practices. And, most importantly, create a healthy atmosphere in which a child will not have to resort to gambling to feel happy and accomplished.