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Emily D. Swoboda
 

Underage Gambling - What's an Industry to Do?

28 October 2005

The darker side of recreational gambling is no secret: While it's a fun pastime, some players develop dangerous addictions that can destroy their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And underage gambling, though a relatively new phenomenon, is a growing problem that doesn't get anywhere near the attention it deserves.


"We have kids that come to us that say, 'You know, I went to school and they told me drugs are bad and excessive alcohol is bad. Why didn't they ever tell me gambling was bad?'"
- Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky
Youth Gambling Institute

Only a handful of researchers are studying the causes and effects of youth gambling. Among them is Jeffrey Derevensky, Ph. D., co-director of the Youth Gambling Institute (YGI) at McGill University in Montreal. Derevensky became interested in youth gambling more than a decade ago while doing work for the toy industry, specifically studying video game playing. From there he began to examine the rate at which kids play video games in its relationship to gambling habits.

"Fifteen years ago we tried to figure out if there were any things in reality that were like video games and we stumbled upon gambling," Derevensky said. "And so we found that kids were having gambling problems."

Adolescents by nature are more likely to participate in destructive behaviors and risk taking. But through research, Derevensky has learned the rate of gambling addiction is higher among youths than it is among adults.

"They (adolescents) see themselves as invulnerable and invincible and they're more likely to engage in risky behaviors," Derevensky said. "The prevalence rates seem to suggest that adolescents with problem gambling is about 4 to 6 percent; with adults it ranges anywhere from 1 to 3 percent."

Derevensky and his colleague, Rina Gupta, Ph.D., assess patients at the clinic through a number of screens and clinical interviews. They've found that most kids with gambling problems are preoccupied with it and an inability to stop, regardless of the consequences. Addiction generally doesn't happen in a vacuum. It is typically a symptom of a more serious, underlying problem. It consumes the addict until he effectively shuts out everyone in his life.

"What we find is that there's an awful lot of escapism," Derevensky said. "They're using gambling as a way of dealing with their problems. When people gamble, they get so engrossed in what they're doing that everything stops around them."

Perhaps the most frightening--and certainly the most detrimental--effect of gambling addiction is the addicts' propensity toward suicide. It's common for addicts in general to contemplate suicide after they lose everything.

Whether a higher suicide rate exists among adolescents with gambling problems, Devevensky said, is not known.

"We do know that adult pathological gamblers often have high degrees of suicide ideation," he said. "Whether or not they actually make more suicide attempts is unknown. But we do know that there certainly are a number of individuals who have committed suicide clearly as a result of their gambling problems."

Derevensky has also found that some adolescents with gambling problems suffer from depression and become involved in other forms of destructive behavior, though not necessarily to the level of addiction.

"They tend to drink more often," he said. "They do more poorly in school, and they have anxiety."

While it's scientifically impossible to predict a person's predilection toward certain behaviors, the YGI is attempting to develop a guideline of sorts for identifying the types of personality characteristics associated with gambling addiction.

"We don't know enough yet," Derevensky said. "We are beginning to look at a constellation of factors. For example, one thing we do know is that individuals who are low in resiliency tend to be at much greater risk of battling a gambling problem."

Derevensky and Gupta are trying to find ways to build up resiliency in individuals and are developing more prevention programs. But because this is such a new area of study, few resources are available to young people at risk of developing a problem.

"One of the problems around gambling--unlike alcohol abuse, drug use and smoking and even unprotected sex--is that if you go into schools, there are many programs currently in the schools trying to prevent this," Derevensky said. "The flip side is, in terms of gambling, we don't see as much of that. You're hard-pressed to find good, science-based prevention programs."

One of YGI's biggest crusades, thus, is reforming social policy. They are highly involved with governments around the world, offering counseling on how to deal with gambling issues--especially underage gambling.

"There are very few researchers, in general, doing research on youth gambling around the world," Derevensky said. "So we try to share our expertise."

It's logical to expect the pervasiveness of underage problem gambling to be higher in countries where gambling is more available and less regulated by government, like in the United Kingdom and other countries that allow Internet betting. For the most part, Derevensky said, this is true.

"Most of the data seems to suggest that the countries are fairly consistent," he said. "Although in Australia and New Zealand, because of the large number of what they call "pokies," they have reported high prevalence rates of pathological gambling and in kids as well.

"We did a study in Ontario where the minimum age to buy a lottery ticket is 19 and we found that most underage kids had no difficulty buying a lottery ticket."

What fascinates Derevensky, though, is that the Internet gambling phenomenon in the United States.

"It's quite interesting, and these are unverified figures; these are industry figures," he said. "But 50 percent of all Internet wagering is done by people living in the U.S.,where it's illegal."

So, who is to blame for the growing epidemic of underage problem gambling? Derevensky feels it is a shared responsibility.

"Parents have a responsibility to monitor their kids," he said. "I think kids have a responsibility not to play for money. I think our educational system has a responsibility to help prepare kids by developing and implementing prevention initiatives in this domain.

"We have kids that come to us that say, 'You know, I went to school and they told me drugs are bad and excessive alcohol is bad. Why didn't they ever tell me gambling was bad?'"

Derevensky also feels that the gambling industry has a responsibility, but he doesn't believe it will take it. Instead he predicts governments will step in . . . and not for the right reasons.

"So the government is going to take responsibility," he said. "And they're going to regulate and control it (the gambling industry) and soon they'll own it because they are the greediest. They're addicted to the revenues that are being generated. And I don't think the sites are going to take the responsibility because what I think the industry is fearful of is that governments will regulate them and knock out the small guy.

"They are going to want to make all the money they can while they can. And that's my fear."

Underage Gambling - What's an Industry to Do? is republished from iGamingNews.com.
Emily D. Swoboda
Emily D. Swoboda