A Losing Bet – Part one

The allure, the excitement and the dire consequences of a hard to identify addiction.

Let’s be honest. Teen gambling isn’t exactly a top-of-mind issue for educators and parents when it comes to keeping kids safe. Drugs, alcohol and sex are.

But addiction experts who work in the field of problem gambling believe young people need to know the risks involved with gambling, especially when you consider that around 40 per cent of teens gamble. They point to research that indicates young people are at greater risk than adults for becoming problem gamblers and note that most adult problem gamblers began gambling as tweens.

“Youth are learning gambling behaviours early on. Gambling is entrenched in our society, in our language,” says David Horricks, executive director of the community support division at B.C.’s gaming policy and enforcement branch. “Gambling promotion is everywhere and it always shows people having a great time.”

While the vast majority of people — young and old — gamble recreationally without problems by setting limits on how much they spend, how long and how often they play, four to eight per cent of teens suffer from problem gambling. Another 10 to 15 per cent are at risk of developing a problem. (By comparison, problem gambling affects two to four per cent of adults.) Mental and physical health, relationships, financial security, education and employment can all be impacted negatively by problem gambling. “It’s not just about the money. It’s time away from family, the time spent gambling as opposed to doing other things. If you’re spending your entire day in the casino, not doing anything healthy, not eating right, that’s a problem,” Horricks says.

Across Canada, teens report that they gamble — with friends and family — either at home, at friends’ houses or at school. They gamble on dares, card games (poker and blackjack), games of skill (pool and darts), scratch tickets, lotteries, sports pools, online and even at casinos. Teens are adept at getting around the government-prescribed age minimums established to keep them from gambling.

A safe bet

Mina Hazar, provincial program director of the Youth Gambling Awareness Program (YGAP) at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, says it’s important to talk to kids about the dangers of gambling so they can make good decisions and stay safe. “With parents and educators, in general, when we talk about alcohol and drug abuse it’s on their radar. When we talk about gambling, it’s not so much on the top of the list for parents to watch for signs and problems,” Hazar says.

She notes that problem gambling is not a visible addiction like drugs and alcohol. It’s a hidden addiction so parents, counsellors and educators need to know the signs — changes in behaviour and psychological signs such as depression, anger and even violence if they are prevented from playing. Physical signs include fatigue and lack of focus due to lack of sleep, homework not being done, skipping school and grades slipping. As for financial warning signs, Hazar explains that younger teens might borrow or steal money to gamble, while evidence that older teens and young adults are gambling can be found on credit cards.

Under Horricks’s purview is the Responsible and Problem Gambling Program which offers gambling awareness/prevention programs to schools in British Columbia.1 The key messages that the program imparts to educators, parents and kids are to know the risks, signs and symptoms of problem gambling; and that help is available for someone in trouble. Across Canada, provincial resources are widely available, including curriculum-based modules that can be used to teach math, health, social studies and more.


The elusive jackpot

Gambling risk education is intended to normalize talking about the problem as has been done with smoking, drugs and alcohol. Gambling is more challenging, however, because the problem can be invisible for a long time.

Horricks says, “Gambling has to get to a pretty acute stage for people not to be able to deny it anymore. If a young person is withdrawn, not engaging with parents, there could be many reasons, but we need to be inquisitive about what it is they are doing. “You need to have the conversation. Is there any gambling going on with your friends? Do you do it, talk about it? Is it in your (video) games? What do you think about it?”

While teens are at a higher risk of becoming problem gamblers than the adult population, young males represent the highest risk because as Horricks says, “They’re risk-takers and bullet-proof.” He adds, “There are kids who believe they can fund their education through gambling. They think they can emulate the success of the high-profile gamblers who are winning huge amounts playing poker. “It’s bravado, kind of cool, sexy, but the young male is at risk for all of the risk-taking behaviours. Gambling is just another one.”

The risk-taking nature of teens and their emerging cognitive decision-making skills are key reasons why young people are at greater risk to become problem gamblers.“It’s a developmental issue as to why they start and some individuals have a difficult time stopping,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, a professor and director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviours at McGill University in Montreal.


Dangerous misconceptions

One of the risk factors for problem gambling is what’s known as an early big win. “If you win a lot of money you keep coming back because you think you can replicate that. For a kid, $100 is a big win,” says Dr. Derevensky, a child psychologist. “Even though the gambling industry is based on knowing that the more a person gambles the more they will lose, young males think they’re smarter than everybody else and can beat the system. When it comes to sports gambling they think they know all the statistics, they know who’s injured, how players are playing, so it becomes a potentially risky time for them.”

Although it’s illegal for people under a certain age (differing from province to province) to place these wagers, Dr. Derevensky says his studies show young people do not have much difficulty purchasing tickets. “Teenagers begin by gambling amongst themselves and then move to betting on provincial-run sports lotteries. When they get older, kids often get involved with bookmakers. That’s even more problematic because they often give kids credit. Bookmakers can be found online and locally. Local bookmakers often post their odds online, too, although it’s more secretive and passwords are required to access these sites, but it’s not all that difficult [to access],” he advises.

Horricks, Hazar and Dr. Derevensky all emphasize that young people have to understand how gambling works. A common misconception — based on what kids know to be true about video gaming — is that if they practice enough they will increase their chances of winning when they gamble. Teens need to know that no amount of practicing will make you a winner when the outcome depends purely on chance as is the case with lotteries, roulette, VLTs and slot machines.

Dr. Derevensky points out that even when a casino tells you the last 20 numbers that came up on the roulette wheel it won’t help you pick the next winner because you cannot control or deduce the outcome of random events — in this case, where the little white ball will land next. That’s where adolescent gambling awareness programs come in. “There are copious amounts of teaching materials, workshop offerings, website resources available in every province yet they are not being used to the extent they should be,” notes Dr. Derevensky.

Watch for Part II of Wanna Bet? in our Fall 2017 issue. We’ll delve into online gambling, the convergence of video gaming and gambling and the potential ramifications for teens.


By: Laurie Nealin

1 https://www.bcresponsiblegambling.ca/prevention-education/high-school