A Losing Bet – Part 2

Today’s teenagers are growing up with the option to gamble at their fingertips and in-game gambling embedded in their video games. Gambling has become normalized in our society as government-run gambling continues to expand — whether it’s casinos or online gambling.

Ease of access and the convergence of gaming and gambling is stacking the odds against vulnerable teens.

Research tells us that four to eight per cent of Canadian teens suffer from problem gambling. A further 10 to 15 per cent are at risk of developing a problem. Now, simulated gambling games and the convergence of gaming and gambling have experts in the field of problem gambling concerned, wondering if an increase in those statistics is in the cards.

In this second installment of our two-part series on the perils of teen gambling, we share their insights about these current trends and their potential to put youth at greater risk for problem gambling.

(You can read Part l in the Summer Break 2017 issue.)
(Read Part 1 online here)

Enticed to gamble

“Nobody becomes a problem gambler, a pathological gambler overnight. It takes a while,” says Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, professor and director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviours at McGill University. “With this generation of kids who have grown up with gambling being readily accessible, and often supported by the parents, will that have a negative effect in five or 10 years? I don’t know, but I am concerned.”

Dr. Derevensky’s research has found that an increasing number of youth are gambling online and through social media for virtual currency, and that doing so may lead to gambling for money. “We’re making it more accessible. B.C. and Manitoba (among others) have online gambling. Yes, they try to make sure underage individuals don’t access it, but do they? Yeah. They’re pretty smart in being able to do that.”

Young people generally aren’t attracted to slot machines or VLTs, so the industry is trying to make it more enticing for them to gamble, our experts say. Dr. Derevensky notes, for example, that the machines in casinos now have touch-sensitive video screens and include shoot ‘em games you play using a gun. The Montreal-based child psychologist and his collegues have been studying the intersection between gaming and gambling and how the two are becoming more and more synonymous.

Illusion of control

“I’ve watched young kids play simulated slot machines or blackjack games. I was sitting next to a young kid who said, ‘Look, daddy. Look how good I am. Can we play a real slot machine?’” Dr. Derevensky says, recalling his experience at an airport where free gambling games were available on public-use ipads. “That’s where the problem comes about. It’s what psychologists call transfer of learning,” he added.

Many online gambling sites have trial practice sites where you can “learn” how to play the game. Dr. Derevensky says beginners are given disproportionately high odds. “If you were a young person and saw your chip level grow, the natural inclination is to say, ‘If I had only been doing it for real money, look how much money I would have had.’ What looks random, is not necessarily so random. It gives people a perceived illusion of control.”

While games like poker and blackjack do have some skill involved compared to VLTs where chance alone determines the outcome, the danger is in a player’s belief that they are really good at the game. “We’ve had kids in treatment for gambling on online poker. They start off playing for nickels and do really well. They progress to dimes, then quarters and dollars and continue to do okay. Once they start betting five dollars the tide turns because the higher the stakes the better the other players are that they’re playing against.”

Mina Hazar, provincial program director of the Youth Gambling Awareness Program (YGAP) at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, warns, “Teens are gambling when they may not know how gambling works.”She notes that online and through free apps youth can play casino-style games that could encourage their migration to gambling. Although they don’t win money, some of them consider it training to transition to traditional gambling. Video games, which are based on skill, are also incorporating gambling content, which is based on chance.“When you incorporate the two, it gives the player a sense of control and that’s not reality.”

Fifty per cent of Canadians play video games, Hazar says. With video games, people can win or progress to higher levels with practice. They wrongly assume they can also control the outcome of the gambling component if they persist and practise.


A Youth Gambling study conducted in 2013 with students ages 13 to 19 in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland revealed: 

  • Nearly 10 per cent of the teenagers had gambled online while 42 per cent had gambled in any form in the previous three months
  • Males were significantly more likely to gamble online than females
  • Among adolescents who reported gambling online, 17 per cent were classified as high risk for problem gambling (using a scale that measures problem gambling) compared to one per cent of participants who participated in land-based gambling only
  • The high proportion of teens who are gambling in any form is concerning because research suggests that the earlier people start to gamble, the more likely it is to be a problem later on

Review the full report at http://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-016-2933-0

Harm reduction

The convergence of gaming and gambling is certainly a top-of-mind issue for David Horricks, executive director of the community supports division at B.C.’s gaming policy and enforcement branch. “There is evidence that there are significant problems with gamers who play compulsively over too much time at the expense of other elements of their life. They are also most likely to engage in gambling offerings currently being put into their games simply because it can enhance their ability to win their game,” Horricks says.

With 2,000 illegal gambling sites online, kids can gamble at any time, Horricks also points out. “It’s a burgeoning problem and I think we haven’t seen the tsunami of problems yet because it hasn’t gotten bad enough and it’s masked in gaming.” For that reason, adults should look beyond the traditional gambling model when considering whether a young person is at risk for problem gambling. As well, gambling on a smartphone or the internet can easily occur without anyone noticing. Horricks adds, “Our challenge as parents, educators, government regulators and treatment providers is to engage proactively in harm reduction to minimise the negative consequences that will capture a significant number of these young people.”

Hazar emphasizes that there are many ways to integrate problem gambling awareness and prevention into the curriculum. Critical thinking and media literacy discussions lend themselves well to the topic, as do math classes when it comes to understanding gambling odds, probability and chance.She encourages educators to tap into the bounty of educational resources that are available to schools across the country.

By: Laurie Nealin


Ontario’s Youth Gambling Awareness Program has developed a “Game-bling” workshop that explores the blurred boundaries between online gaming and gambling. http://youthbet.com/workshop-options/