Edition #1: Youth and gambling

Close up illustration of wide open cartoon eyes with poker machine images reflecting inside
Close up illustration of wide open cartoon eyes with poker machine images reflecting inside
Illustration: Steven Moore

Teenage gambling: a business that’s only getting riskier

Dr Jeffrey Derevensky has been studying children and gambling for more than two decades. The author of Teen Gambling: Understanding a growing epidemic is considered one of the world's leading experts on how and why teenagers gamble and what might be done to prevent problems arising. He joined Inside Gambling to discuss what he's learned and what he still wants to know.

How did you become interested in researching young people and gambling? 

Over 20 years ago, I was studying children's toys and that's when Nintendo first came out. As a result, we began to look at Nintendo to see if it simulated anything that young people would be using in the real world.

At that time, because of the intimate schedules of reinforcement and the video game technology that was starting to develop – and its possible relationship to slot machines and other forms of gambling – our very first study looked at the impact of excessive video game playing on gambling behaviours.

What was interesting to see, and not surprisingly, was that young people developed gaming addictions, even then. Those people who had high-frequency gaming were much more likely to gamble than those with low-frequency video game playing.

Close up hands holding Nintendo gaming control Photo: iStock

What drives you to continue to work in this area?

Gambling is constantly evolving and changing. That becomes both a source of problems and a challenge. Historically, we've gone from casino-based gambling to now online gambling.

One of the things we're very concerned about now is social casino gaming – where kids play casino-simulated forms of gambling – and whether or not they'll actually wind up migrating over to online gambling sites or land-based sites.

Unlike substances such as cigarettes and alcohol, and even drugs to some extent, gambling is constantly evolving.

It becomes a challenge, also, in terms of prevention and treatment opportunities and ways to work with individuals. Unlike substances such as cigarettes and alcohol, and even drugs to some extent, gambling is constantly evolving.

We also know that gambling has become very socialised and socially accepted as a relatively benign form of entertainment. Yet we know young people are experiencing gambling problems.

What are the emerging trends and areas of concern?

We're starting to see in North America a lot more fantasy sports wagering. Fantasy sports wagering has not been classified as gambling per se, so we're starting to see large numbers of fantasy leagues being developed, which have now moved from contests that cover an entire season to daily games or daily types of wagering.

We're also seeing a lot more social casino games available to young people with distorted odds of winning. A real concern is whether or not it will prompt individuals to go online and gamble more on online gambling sites.

We're seeing a lot more social casino games available to young people with distorted odds of winning.

The good news is that we're starting to make inroads in the industry. Historically, the industry negated any of these findings, but today they're much more willing to accept these findings and are trying to work with us in terms of minimising the harms that are associated with gambling.

What difficulties is the online world going to present for young people and gambling in the future? 

The biggest segment of the online gambling industry is moving towards more mobile forms of gambling. Most young people have smart phones that provide easy access to gambling sites. What makes this problematic is that the contract for a young person's mobile is typically under the parent's name. So when a gambling company does an age verification they find that they're certainly acceptable. Many of these young kids are getting overly involved in both simulated forms of gambling and actual online gambling.

Other concerns are related to sports wagering, and there's a real concern about the normalisation of sports wagering for under-age kids.

Four tennagers playing on their mobile phones beside a caféPhoto: iStock

What can the industry do to combat youth gambling?

Certainly better age verification procedures. We have worked with a number of online gambling operators to look at using a wide variety of models to predict who may in fact start developing a gambling problem. And then using that as a way of intervening early to minimise the harms. I think most operators are now suggesting this is a corporate social responsibility issue and are starting to work with researchers along those lines.

What should parents and teachers know more about, and what can they do to prevent their kids gambling?

I think part of it has to do with understanding parental and teacher attitudes towards gambling. In schools you find drug and alcohol prevention programs, anti-bullying programs and a whole range of other programs preventing risky behaviours. The problem is we don't find many gambling prevention programs in schools.

Gambling is often referred to as a hidden addiction. When we go into schools and offer our services for prevention or want to talk to parents, most parents are totally unaware their children are gambling. Even where individuals have gambling problems, many of the parents are completely unaware this is a big issue.

The problem is we don't find many gambling prevention programs in schools.

We've been developing a number of different prevention programs, which I think will be instrumental in helping parents. In a number of studies we've done in a variety of countries – Canada, Romania and Finland – we've found that while many teachers are unaware of youth gambling issues, they're very willing to learn about those issues. So I think we need to develop more professional development programs. These would be able to intervene and help educate teachers, as well as parents and mental health professionals about the risks associated with gambling.

What should governments do to prevent young people gambling? 

Gambling has become extremely normalised in our society and our governments are supporting gambling because of the large amounts of revenues being generated. Governments can also provide resources to help educate young people within the school systems. There are a number of prevention programs that could help minimise the harms associated with excessive gambling. As well as providing funding for education programs for educators and school administrators.

Candy Crush – a fun game for kids, or a gaming company grooming the next generation of gamblers?

We've done some interesting research looking at whether or not people will migrate over from simulated gambling to real gambling. We haven't used Candy Crush, we've used simulated forms of gambling like DoubleDown Casino, and what we've found is that there are some migration patterns over.

If a young person is winning a lot of points or simulated chips, they're much more likely to say to themselves, 'If I had only been playing for money, look at how much money I would have made'.

The concern is that these games, which are played for fun, don't have the same payout rates as those on their gambling site. As a result, if a young person is winning a lot of points or simulated chips, they're much more likely to say to themselves, 'If I had only been playing for money, look at how much money I would have made'.

Where to next – what do we still not know about teens and gambling?

I think there are still certainly cultural factors that we really need to look at. I think we need to look at how we can raise greater public awareness about some of the risk factors, not only among youth themselves, but also looking at parents, teachers, mental health professionals and policy makers.

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