Internet gambling among teens and college students

Gambling is a popular pastime for adults, whether it is purchasing lotto tickets, betting on sports games or casino-style gambling. Unsurprisingly, internet gambling has also become popular; it is so popular that in the fall of 2011, comScore found that online gambling was the fastest growing online category, with almost 10 million U.S. users.

Global online gambling is now worth an estimated $30 billion. And online poker is estimated to be worth $6 billion annually in the US alone, as the Justice Department has apparently opened the door to internet gambling by reversing their longtime position that online poker and betting was illegal.

Just how open online gambling will become with this change of ruling has yet to be seen, but it is interesting to note that Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands Casino and one of the world's richest men, responded to the ruling with concern, saying that “loosening the reins on online gambling will take a heavy toll on young people, especially because current technology isn't robust enough to keep children from betting real money using their computers .”

He’s right. Internet gambling takes little more than acquiring or “borrowing” a credit card.

Internet gambling sites already have teens and young adult users on their sites. A whopping 20% of college students play online poker at least once a month according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, an organization that has tracked young people’s use of gambling sites for over 10 years.

In 2010 the Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed students and compared the results to their 2008 survey. They found that monthly use of internet gambling sites among college-age males shot up from 4.4% in 2008 to 16.0% in 2010. In spite of the sharp increase in participants, their frequency of use did not increase, remaining at about 3% on a weekly basis.

“The dramatic increase in use of online gambling by college age male youth indicates that payment restrictions on such sites are no longer a barrier to young people” said Dan Romer, director of the Annenberg Adolescent Communication Institute, which conducts the annual survey. Projected on a national basis, more than 400,000 male youth in the college age range (18 to 22) gamble for money at least once a week on the Internet, and over 1.7 million do so at least once a month.

The research noted that high school-aged males showed only a small and statistically insignificant increase in monthly use of Internet gambling sites between 2008 and 2010 (from 2.7% to 6.2%), but this still represents over 530,000 high school- aged male students visiting gambling sites per month.

Among high school females, the study found that females continue to gamble less than males, but the latest survey shows a sharp rise in some types of offline gambling, primarily related to sports. While only 9.5% of high school girls reported engaging in sports betting on a monthly basis in 2008, fully 22% reported doing so in 2010.

Sports betting was the main reason for the overall increase in total gambling for high school-aged females, going from 18.9% in 2008 to 28.2% in 2010.

The frequency of betting also showed a dramatic increase, from less than 1% in 2008 to 8.3% in 2010.

Contributing to this trend is the availability of online venues, and the expansion and acceptance of offline gambling.

Why youth gamble

Today's teens are living in a society where legalized gambling is not only socially acceptable; it is widely promoted and highly visible. 48 states now allow some form of gambling. Casinos advertise heavily through TV, radio, online and billboard ads. Poker tournaments complete with expert commentary, interesting filming angles, and million dollar prizes have become “hot ticket” reality TV on cable & broadband networks.

Given the prevalence, visibility and glamour now afforded to gambling, it is not surprising that many teens are drawn to the instant gratification, thrill and hope of fast money. The three predominant reasons reported by teens for gambling are (a) the excitement it brings, (b) enjoyment, and (c) to win money. Other reasons adolescents gamble include peer pressure, to relieve boredom and to relieve feelings of depression. This is particularly the case on college campuses where students play poker in dorm rooms and local bars.

Columbia University Medical Center's research indicates that teenagers make up half of the 16 million people in the United States with gambling addictions. At a time when youth are struggling and searching for their identity, gambling can appeal both because of its excitement value and its ability to rapidly boost a youth’s self-image. This can dramatically switch, however, when losses inevitably increase and trigger a drop in self-esteem, financial anxiety and depression. Youth may begin stealing or selling possessions to pay off debts, or to continue gambling in the hopes of winning big.

Columbia’s research also indicates that youth who begin gambling at an early age are at increased risk of addiction, and that gambling-addicted youths’ perceptions become altered into believing they have a higher than 50% chance of winning. Parents that gamble, give lottery tickets to youth or show approval of gambling are often a key contributing factor in teens with problem gambling. Teens succumb to gambling addiction at rates between two and four times the rate of adults.

Complicating efforts to protect minors from online gambling is the ever present access to computers and mobile phones (several online casinos and card rooms offer mobile options) that make gambling just a click away. Another factor is the anonymity of online interactions: ID verification checks that serve as barriers to underage gambling in brick-and-mortar casinos are practically non-existent in the world of online gambling.

Identifying gambling addiction

If you suspect that you or your child has a gambling problem, review the following list of questions created by the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling that helps identify if gambling has become an addiction:

Problem Gambling Warning Signs:

  • Is gambling the most exciting activity in your life?
  • Do you miss school, activities, or other events due to gambling?
  • Has anyone expressed concern about your gambling?
  • Do you lie to your friends or family about your gambling?
  • Do you borrow money to gamble?
  • Have you sold personal belongings to get money to gamble?
  • Have you stolen from your family, friends, or employer to gamble or to pay back gambling debts?
  • After losing, do you try to win your money back by gambling?
  • Are you preoccupied with thoughts of gambling?
  • Have you tried to stop gambling but can't?

Recovery from online gambling addictions is particularly challenging because in a moment of weakness a relapse is still only one click away.

Several states and organizations offer assistance for people struggling with gambling addictions and can provide referral services to councilors and programs in your area. To find help in your area, ask your doctor, or search online for “Internet Gambling addiction help” (plus the name of your state or city). You may also choose to contact Gamblers Anonymous and see their local listings for your area.

Talk about online gambling

Given the ease of access and the allure that online gambling (and real world gambling) has on teens and college age students, it is critical that youth (particularly males) and parents understand and discuss the risks to minors surrounding this activity. After gaining a basic understanding of the issues around internet gambling through this article, you may be prepared for this discussion. If you believe the problems you are facing require more assistance you may want to contact your primary care physician, or review additional online material through the links embedded within this document and in the additional links below.

More resources on online gambling:

i The Christian Science Monitor
ii http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2011/1226/Boom-in-Internet-gambling-ahead-US-policy-reversal-clears-the-way/%28page%29/2
iii http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/NewsDetails.aspx?myId=395
iv http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/NewsDetails.aspx?myId=395

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