Edition #4: Gambling harm

Teenage boy sitting alone at in a large tunnel.
Teenage boy sitting alone at in a large tunnel.
Photo: iStock

Why boys are susceptible to the siren song of online and offline gambling

'Adam' was just 19 when his father, a close friend, rang me one Saturday night and asked to meet, but pleaded with me to keep our conversation and subsequent meeting private.

He reported that his son had, unbeknownst to him or his wife, racked up a gambling debt of over $125,000.

Despite gambling being illegal for people under 18, Adam had spent the last few years of his school life engaging in a mix of online and offline gambling and was now under threat from people he had borrowed money from.

In addition to obtaining an ATAR* of just 33, Adam had developed a drug and alcohol problem, had self-harmed and was actively suicidal. In a last, desperate act, he had broken down and told his dad the nature and extent of the problem.

Adam had spent the last few years of his school life engaging in a mix of online and offline gambling.

Dad paid off the debts on the condition that Adam sought help. He was subsequently referred to treatment and now, some years later, manages to lead a reasonably happy life. However, his vocational and academic career has been significantly derailed.

All the digital toys at their fingertips

Adam's story is far from unique. But why are so many young people, especially men, drawn to gambling? And why are young men disproportionately represented in the problem gambling figures?

Recent figures from the Young and Well National Survey show that eight per cent of young men aged 16 to 25 reported having gambled online in the past month, a figure that (although relatively low) has risen with the increased availability and access to online gambling platforms.

Adam's generation has grown up with all the digital toys at their fingertips: smartphones, tablets and laptops. Betting companies have exploited this and skilfully developed platforms for wagering that provide real-time data updates and instant gratification to generations of sensation-seeking adolescents.

Betting companies have exploited this and skilfully developed platforms that provide instant gratification.

But beyond the impressive technological capabilities of these betting platforms, gambling research provides some clues as to why the games resonate so much with this demographic.

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A brain ripe for risk-taking

Let's start with Adam's brain. These days, a consensus of neuroscientists agree that brain development likely persists until at least the mid-twenties – possibly until the thirties. The prefrontal cortex doesn't have nearly the functional capacity at age 18 as it does at 25. Put simply, this means people like Adam can have major struggles with impulsive decisions and planning behaviour to reach a goal.

The brain's reward system tends to reach a high level of activation during puberty, then gradually drifts back to normal activation when a person reaches roughly the age of 25. Adults over the age of 25 tend to feel less sensitive to the influence of peer pressure and have a much easier time handling it. In short, Adam's brain isn't the best when it comes to thinking about the consequences of his decisions, his impulse control isn't great and he is significantly susceptible to peer pressure.

Add to this, the external cues to gamble. Switch on the TV during any major sporting event and you will see that audiences, including the Adams of this world, are confronted with a variety of messages consistent with a pro-gambling culture. Very little attention is given to informing them about the risks or providing responsible gambling messages, except in the most tokenistic of ways.

Adam's brain isn't the best when it comes to thinking about the consequences of his decisions, his impulse control isn't great and he is significantly susceptible to peer pressure.

Besides the obvious allure of winning lots of money, research suggests that for many of these young men, online and offline gambling can:

  • reaffirm their masculinity
  • offer a virtual getaway from daily routines and stressors
  • allow them to form connections with their peers
  • power competitive drives
  • allow them to have more multifaceted experiences
  • give them the opportunity for boasting.

Helping Adam resist the temptation

So how can we assist young men to respond appropriately to the temptation to gamble?

The message for parents is clear: they cannot outsource responsibility for education around gambling to governments or charities. When news reports about a lottery ticket winner or a gambling ad appears on TV, parents ought to take the opportunity to:

  • talk to their kids about the reality and risks of gambling
  • deliver responsible gambling messages, including knowledge of how gambling works and how to avoid the harm it causes
  • empower young people to seek help if they need it.

Find out more about young people and gambling

The foundation website has more information about young people and gambling, including tools and tips for talking to teenagers about the issue.

You can also phone Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858 or Gambler's Help Youthline on 1800 262 376 for support and advice.

* The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is used to assess and compare the results of school-leaving applicants for entry into tertiary institutions.

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