Jack Plunkett  /  AP file
Most kids have gambled before their 18th birthday, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
By contributor
updated 2/6/2006 11:33:38 AM ET 2006-02-06T16:33:38

In the past decade gambling has moved from Vegas and Atlantic City right into our neighborhoods and, oftentimes, our living rooms. Almost every state offers some form of legalized gaming — from lotteries and bingo to riverboat casinos and Indian gaming. Thanks to the Internet and televised poker tournaments, our homes can even be havens for gambling. Of course, this activity is supposed to be reserved for adults.

But researchers say a shocking number of kids are gambling, whether they’re doing it online with credit cards, sneaking into casinos with fake IDs, holding their own Texas Hold 'Em poker games or betting on sports events.

The National Council on Problem Gambling, in fact, says a “vast majority” of kids have gambled before their 18th birthday, and researchers who study the issue, such as Lia Nower, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, say that anywhere from 24 to 42 percent of adolescents gamble weekly. Of these gamblers, about 3 to 5 percent will become problem gamblers.

“Kids are very vulnerable. They’re about twice as likely as adults to develop a problem with gambling,” says Nower.

Part of the reason children are at higher risk of developing gambling problems is because they are natural risk-takers. Kids, predictably, are less likely than adults to make good judgment calls and control impulses. Nower says also that kids want to emulate their idols, many of whom are showing off their supposed gambling prowess these days.

'Sexy activity'
“You have all these television shows now with role models — celebrities, rappers, movie stars — playing poker. This has made gambling a very sexy activity in which to engage,” she says.

Elizabeth George, director of the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling, agrees that TV has made more kids intrigued by gambling but, she says, you can’t discount the other forces: “The Internet is also an awesome player in this problem. Really, though, gambling [promotion] is everywhere now. This is the first generation of young people who have had gambling legal and very much advertised for practically their whole life. Now almost every state spends millions of dollars advertising lotteries, casinos and other ways to gamble.”

According to George, Nower and others, though, the real danger isn’t that gambling is pervasive. It’s that so many parents don’t recognize the potential risk in it. Experts say many adults inadvertently tell their children it’s OK to gamble.

“Parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles introduce most youngsters to gambling. Relatives give kids scratch-off [lottery] tickets for gifts. They take family trips to race tracks. They go with grandma to bingo. All these kinds of things propel kids into the mystical, magical world of gambling,” says George. Even schools and churches are guilty of promoting gambling with casino nights and bingo.

“There’s been a lot of awareness that’s been raised around alcohol and drugs but gambling hasn’t had the same exposure,” says Carmen Messerlian, director of the McGill University International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviors in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Steep consequences
She notes that for the vast majority of kids, gambling — just like drugs or alcohol — won’t become an addiction. “If you have a room of 25 kids ages 12 to 17, one in the group has the potential to develop a gambling problem,” she says. Yet for that one the consequences can be steep.

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“We’ve often treated teens here who have had huge debts — tens of thousands of dollars,” says Messerlian. “Of course, they’re not going to lose their house but they are going to lose out on some important developmental stages.”

Teens hooked on gambling tend to dismiss school, friends and family; they often drop extracurricular activities such as sports, music or church. Many kids have gambled away possessions and even began stealing from their families or part-time jobs to pay debts and continue their habits. “There was a case where a teen robbed a bank to try to pay off a debt,” says Messerlian. “In Montreal, there were also kids who counterfeited money to try to pay off gambling debts.”

While anyone could potentially develop a gambling problem, some kids are more susceptible. Researchers have found that unresolved loss and grief seem to propel gamblers of any age.

“For people who are suffering, gambling can put them in almost like an altered state where they’re so focused that they can lose track of time. It’s like putting a burned finger in cold water. There’s a sense of relief,” says George. She notes that kids who have suffered a loss — having parents divorce, grandparents die, breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend or even being cut from the football team — are more vulnerable to gambling problems. Any kid with a history of addiction or a family history of addiction is also at higher risk. But probably the most important factor is parents.

Last year, a study in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that teens who had parents who gamble were more likely to try gambling and were more likely to develop a gambling problem. That same study also found, however, that parents who spent more time monitoring and supervising their children were less likely to have children who gambled.

Yet, still there is too little parental concern about gambling. In one study conducted by the Minnesota council, only 9 percent of parents of children 15 and younger said they’d be concerned if they discovered their children were gambling.

“If you don’t want your child to develop a problem gambling, you first have to have this on your radar screen,” says Terri Rodriguez Ohlms, a psychotherapist in St. Louis who specializes in treating problem gamblers. “And then you have to be aware of where they’re spending their time and money.”

Pay attention to which Internet sites kids are visiting, whether they’re dropping activities they used to enjoy and if they have unexplained needs for money. However, if they do turn up with a gambling problem, don’t give them a hand and turn the other cheek as many parents do.

“Don’t bail them out,” says Ohlms. “That’s the worst thing you can do. If you do, the problem is going to get much worse and the consequences will get much, much bigger.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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