Teen Gambling: The Invisible Addiction

When you ask parents what aspects of their children’s life worry them the most, chances are that gambling would not come up. A gambler in the public psyche is often a downtrodden miserable person, who squanders his life and livelihood making bad bets. Teenage gambling, unlike other addictions in adolescence, is rarely considered. Whether we glamorize gambling or disparage it, we rarely ask ourselves what made the gambling addict become one. Most people, parents included, assume that becoming a gambler happens at some point in one’s adult life. Even parents that are very worried, and rightly so, about teenage drug and alcohol addiction cannot picture their teenager as a gambler.

However, consider the following information:

Youth gambling addiction is a destructive epidemic that is oftentimes overlooked. Studies show that teens face 2-4 times more gambling-based predicaments than adults. The probability that gambling will become an issue for people is greater the younger they start. This often leads to young people engaging with substances to deal with the gambling losses and depression. As the framework for regulated gambling becomes universally adopted across the United States, we foresee gambling addiction among young adults becoming increasingly more prevalent. With this in mind, our Youth Mentors are able to use their own experience with addiction to warn at risk young adults about the myriad pitfalls associated with incessant gambling.

  • In general, between 60-80% of high school students report having gambled for money during the past year (source)
  • Columbia University Medical Center’s research indicates that teenagers make up half of the 16 million people in the United States with gambling addictions. (source)
  • Some signs of a pathological teen gambler include:

1) Likes the rush felt when gambling

2) Takes money, but then makes desperate attempts to stay in the game by writing IOUs.

3) Will try almost anything to stay in the game.

4) Really wants to win “the big one,” but will keep playing even when losing a great deal

5) Plays online and has no qualms about using a credit card to gamble. (source)

  • In the last few years, children and teenagers have gained much more access to mobile phones and tablet devices that allow them to play games for hours at a time at home. These games, often relying on chance or minimal skill, can keep the child’s attention for long stretches of time. Even when centered on pets, candy and other harmless themes, these games recreate some of the same emotions and excitement experienced by gamblers. Many of these apps are marketed toward a young audience – 2 to 17-year-olds who are vulnerable to gambling addiction and its lifelong consequences. (source)
  • Although adolescents do indulge in forms of gambling that are popular among adults (including games of cards like poker, sports wagering, dice, and board games, betting on games of personal or peer skill, buying lottery tickets, wagering or placing bets with a bookmaker), there has been a steady increase in adolescents turning to novel forms of gambling via the Internet. Typical factors that weigh upon the choice of the particular gambling activity include local availability and accessibility, gender (males may favor sports gambling more compared to female adolescents), age (older adolescents are more likely to engage in casino and machine gambling, poker, and online gambling), cultural ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. (source).
  • Gambling addiction has the highest suicide rate of all addictions. (source)
  • Adolescents with problem gambling are four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and 18 times more likely to attempt suicide than those without problem gambling. (source)
  • There are less problem gamblers among girls than boys, with an estimated ratio between 1:3 and 1:5. However, girls seem to develop gambling problems more rapidly than boys, and manifest a wide array of other mental health issues in comorbidity with their gambling. (source)

As in any addiction, the best approach to gambling is prevention. Once the habit gets out of hand, the disruption and upheaval to the individual and their family becomes unintentionally the target of treatment. Focusing on the fallout of addiction rather than the addiction itself, is much less effective, lengthy and fraught with friction and hurt.

Our work with young teens is aimed at reminding them the real cost of succumbing to addiction, the slippery slope that leads to it and the secrecy that prevents them from relying on resourceful adults.

This message is delivered by young men and women of similar background, who made decisions and choices as teens, that led them into addiction.  Now, wiser and sober, they can help the young teens make better decisions and avoid the pitfalls they have personally experienced.

While polysubstance abuse and gambling is unfortunately very intertwined, anyone already showing the early signs of gambling addiction will be mentored by coaches who struggled primarily with gambling.

Working with coaches who struggled with gambling and know firsthand the intricacies of the present virtual universe of gaming and gambling, is invaluable.  Additionally, teenagers in trouble are much more willing and likely to be truthful with their older peers than anyone else.  This would allow the coach in a nonthreatening and supportive way to gain the trust needed to help the teenager.

If the dimension of the problem appears wider than earlier suspected we would share with the parents and caregivers our concerns while respecting the teenagers privacy. The teen, his or her coach and the parents, would be invited to meet with YPM’s Medical Director for further evaluation and to plan for a tighter support.

Most risky behaviors by teenagers are done as far away as possible from the grownups’ awareness.  That tendency for secrecy and stealth is further compounded when it comes to the teen gambling universe. This is an impenetrable place for those who are not continuously involved in it.  No wonder that most adults are unequipped to evaluate and risk.

In our opinion, a central part of impactful and lasting prevention,is the engagement of a peer/mentor who understands and has struggled with gambling to speak with your child in their own language.