Children are increasingly exposed to the world of betting, via advertising and gaming, so are young minds more susceptible to gambling addiction and what else should parents and educators be aware of?

Words: Libby Norman

In October 2019, the NHS opened its first clinic to treat young people addicted to gambling and gaming – it is working with children as young as 13. Its arrival, which made national news, may have come as a shock to adults whose own betting experience extends to the odd lottery ticket or work sweepstake. But for those who watch or research the increasingly accessible world of gambling, the need for a dedicated youth treatment centre came as no surprise

The scale of gambling issues among young people is hard to gauge accurately, but a 2018 Gambling Commission report estimated that 55,000 11 to 16-year-olds were problem gamblers; this estimate was a quadrupling of the figures from two years earlier. Another large-scale study by Cardiff University (over 37,000 children aged 11) found that over 40 per cent had gambled in the past year. This is surprising if you consider that most forms of gambling are illegal for minors.

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“This is a guinea pig generation –  for a UK child born in 2007 gambling has always been just another form of entertainment”

So what is the law? The National Lottery, including scratch cards and instant-win bets are legal aged 16+, but there are no age restrictions for games machines in what’s known as category D – the kind of arcade games and fruit machines found in clubs, pubs and amusement arcades. Private bets and card games for money are, of course, impossible to regulate although both show up in surveys of young people’s habits.

It is the commercial betting landscape in plain sight – from ‘innocent’ scratch cards to adverts on TV to sponsorship of Premier League football – that is causing disquiet, even among industry insiders. “It’s normalising gambling for children, and that is dangerous,” said Paddy Power founder Stewart Kenny, speaking to journalist Becky Milligan in October 2019 – part of a report on teenage gambling for BBC Radio 4’s PM. Kenny, who has been publicly critical of the betting industry since his resignation from the company he founded, talked about the “barrage” of advertising young people have been exposed to, adding: “It became normal for children to think, well, soccer and gambling are the same thing”.

Professor Jim Orford, Emeritus Professor of Clinical & Community Psychology at University of Birmingham and also Visiting Professor of Gambling Studies at King’s College London, is a long-time watcher of the industry. He, too, is concerned about the way in which gambling has become “normalised” through mainstream avenues – notably football. As he points out, it is emblazoned on shirts, stadia, the backdrop at post-match interviews. “It is making a connection with sport, which young men are into”, he says.

While we are bombarded with adverts – on TV, on billboards and increasingly on YouTube and other digital platforms young people use – advertising wasn’t always part of the digital ‘wallpaper’. In fact, it’s thanks to 2005 legislation says Orford. “Effectively, the legislation meant gambling became like any other entertainment product.” The industry was licensed to stimulate interest and grow its business. What no one foresaw was that this coincided with the exponential rise of digital, enabling online betting avenues. The 2005 Act came into force in 2007 and a decade on UK gambling firms had increased their takings from gamblers by 65%. Orford works with academic colleagues around the world who look at the UK’s relaxed regime with interest – some with astonishment. “We are viewed as the Wild West of gambling”, he says. 

Orford set up the website Gambling Watch UK in 2012 as a means of keeping ‘critical watch’ on gambling policy and making proposals for stronger legislation. He is of the view that a new Gambling Act is needed that looks at it primarily as a public health issue. With specific concerns for young people, Gambling Watch UK argues for a minimum age of 18 for all gambling activities and clearer measures to stop children being introduced to it via social media.  

Young gamblers – what parents and educators need to know

“Gaming’s loot box market is estimated to be worth £20 billion worldwide, £700 million in the UK alone”

The gaming connection?

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of our current gambling climate is that it’s uncharted territory. We don’t know how great the impact of early exposure to gambling messaging will be so this is, effectively, a guinea pig generation. Consider this, for a child born in 2007 and now aged 13 gambling has always been just another form of entertainment.

If sport is now the national stage that places gambling in full view, some critics see gaming as the ‘gateway drug’ that is helping to stimulate interest in the real thing. Even parents who know their child doesn’t watch Premier League games can’t feel entirely at ease, since gaming is now so hugely popular.

There is much discussion about how the competitive and risk/reward elements of some games mimic gambling and could potentially help to stimulate demand for the real thing among young people. We’ve seen an explosion of gaming ‘tools’ that look similar to gambling – loot boxes especially. These mimic gambling by offering rewards for a ‘stake’ of money or virtual money. The current loot box market is estimated to be worth £20 billion worldwide, £700 million in the UK alone. “You find a lot of gambling-like games,” says Orford, adding that with loot boxes there is a specific gambling format in that players “progress towards a material goal”.

Adam Bradford, who co-founded Safer Online Gambling Group with his father David Bradford (his father is a former gambling addict) believes that gaming is already a problem for school-age children. “There is a whole new sector in loot box gaming. Kids can spend virtually unlimited amounts, from tens to hundreds of pounds, on games of chance.” Game design also provides, he believes, a gambling-like environment. Sound, fast pace and cartoon characters are used to draw young people in, with prompts such as ‘upgrade’, ‘advance’ and ‘get better’. “It’s often not clear that you have to pay to get a better weapon or football player,” he says.

As to the gaming as gateway to gambling theory, Bradford believes that there are issues to address. He worries about the positioning of gambling adverts in places where young people are. “These are on social media all the time, with no watershed,” he says. He also worries about the volume of gambling advertising – which has seen a 60% increase since 2015.

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“It is the betting in plain sight – from scratch cards to sponsorship of Premier League football – that is causing disquiet”

Addiction issues

Problem gambling is a medical condition, similar to substance abuse in that it generates a dopamine high. Current research suggests males are somewhat more susceptible than females, possibly due to attitudes to risk taking. Of course, young people’s risk taking is nothing new ­– and nor is obsessional behaviour – and most young people move on unscathed. But the problem gambler (or gamer)  may be very hard to spot in the early days.

Matt Blanks is a former gambler who now supports people with a gambling addiction and acts as a spokesperson for, among others, the free gambling self-exclusion organisation GAMSTOP. He began his own gambling journey very young; it was a win on the horses at odds of 33:1 that sparked his addiction. “I was 11 and my first experience was a rewarding one.” Today he sees parallels between his story and those of people he helps. “I’d say 90 per cent of clients I work with had a big early win, so for most of them their first experience was a rewarding one.” He believes this can lead some young people to believe that money is just waiting to be made. In Blanks’ case, there was also significant early exposure to the social aspects – the camaraderie of a gambling community – during a difficult chapter in his childhood. He believes this sense of belonging can make some children more vulnerable. He adds that gambling is also “learned behaviour”, so early exposure may also have an impact.

Now a parent, Blanks is hyper aware of the gambling-like exposure his young son is already getting through gaming and says: “It frightens the life out of me”. For his son and his son’s peer group a passion for football makes the FIFA game irresistible, and then it’s natural to want to buy the extras on offer. “I can see that already gaming is opening a pathway where children are being encouraged to buy things without knowing the outcome,” he says. He also has concerns that gambling is being promoted too close to the gaming sphere. He says: “Recently, my son asked me if he could access Football Index, which is a licensed gambling site. He found it advertised when he was gaming and because it showed football players he thought this was another game”.

Blanks’ key advice to other parents is to stay attuned and keep a watchful eye on any changes in mood and attitude. “It’s about being aware of your child’s behaviour, how they interact with people and how they behave around an iPad or an Xbox. Do they act differently or become angry?” While lockdown, means time spent gaming may have become an issue in many families, he believes this is an area for caution all the time. “Definitely monitor time in play and watch any money spent – and say no. It’s important to set limits.”

As to the future, there are signs of increased watchfulness of our gambling landscape. Recent betting legislation includes a dramatic reduction in allowable stakes on fixed odds betting terminals and a ban on credit cards being used to place bets. Reappraisal may also be due for gaming; loot boxes already face much harsher legislation (or outright bans) in some countries, and with increased scrutiny for games that cross the line into gambling.

The opening of our first NHS clinic for young gamblers and gamers is another sign that we are waking up to a potential problem facing this ‘guinea pig generation’, but 24/7 betting looks set to be a permanent fixture. Little wonder then that in some quarters there is a growing conviction that UK legislation must be tougher – on both gambling and the gambling-like elements in gaming – to ensure that the house doesn’t always win.

  • This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Absolutely Education