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Kevin Smith

Hardly Child's Play - Popularity of Poker Among American Teens Raises Concerns

26 January 2005

Poker is one of the hottest things going for America's youth.

No longer does the green felt of the table and pocket aces appeal only to senior citizens and hardcore card players. Home games are sprouting up all over with junior high, high school, college students and young professionals all getting into the mix.

" Teenagers gambling is exactly the same as a teenager playing with a gun."
- Jennifer McCausland
Second Chance Washington

But does the poker revolution come at a steep price?

Some responsible gambling advocates say the younger players are when they start gambling, the more likely they are to become addicts.

Poker sets, among the recent holiday season's hottest gifts, are available everywhere from supermarkets to Toys "R" Us. Sales of Bicycle playing cards were up 30 percent last year, and demand for poker sets doubled, according to the U.S. Playing Card Co.

Experts say the popularity of poker among teens fueled these sales. A summer U.S. Playing Card survey indicated that on average, teens play cards about four times a month and that 23 percent of teens identify poker as their favorite card game. The study also showed that 39 percent of teens watch poker on TV.

The game's bursting popularity has led to concerns that today's trend could become tomorrow's epidemic.

Researchers point out, however, that more studies are needed before any determination can be made on how susceptible minors are gambling addiction.

Some parents even see the poker craze as a positive thing and go as far as hosting poker games for minors. They would much rather see their kids playing adult-supervised poker games than not know where they are. The dilemma, of course, is deciding whether kids should embrace poker for all of its positives or stay away from it because of the potential dangers.

Then there are legal matters. No criminal action has been brought to date against adults who host home games, but certain U.S. states do have laws making it illegal for minors to gamble. (No federal laws specifically address underage gambling.) One such state, as pointed out in a recent Associated Press story, is Arizona.

Many parents who were unaware of the law said they would stop hosting poker parties, but others said they would continue hosting them because doing so beats the alternative.

"I would rather have my son playing poker here with his friends or at one of his friend's homes than being out drinking and driving or doing drugs," one father told the AP.

Poker's Appeal to Minors

A survey conducted in December by MSNBC found that 42 percent of 16 and 17 year-olds in the United States had played poker in the last month, and 37 percent of them had watched the World Poker Tour on TV.

Numbers like these worry advocates of responsible gambling.

Jennifer McCausland, the founder of Second Chance Washington, an organization promoting legislation to secure permanent funding for the treatment and prevention of problem gambling, feels the number of minors taking up poker and other gambling activities is a very serious matter that's being overlooked.

"TV is behind the rise of poker more than anything, and there is a lot of glamour with poker right now."
- Keith Furlong
Interactive Gaming Council

"Teenagers gambling is exactly the same as a teenager playing with a gun," she said. "It's a dangerous thing to do. Sometimes the gun will go off."

Many would argue that the gun analogy is a bit extreme, but no one would deny that gambling poses dangers to minors.

For their part, operators and trade groups in the I-gaming industry remain adamant that they do not want minors accessing online poker rooms.

The Interactive Gaming Council (IGC), a leading industry trade association, takes the same approach toward all types of gambling.

"It doesn't matter if it is sports betting, casino gambling, poker or anything else. The activity should only be enjoyed by adults," Keith Furlong, the association's deputy director, explained. "Our members know this and have made concerted efforts to keep the amount of minors who gamble online to a minimum."

But despite the association's treating of all types of gambling equally in the context of social issues, Furlong acknowledges that poker presents some unique problems. The game has a mass appeal among children, and Furlong pointed to the popularity of poker among celebrities as a major reason for this. Further, programs like the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker have helped create an image to which kids can relate.

"TV is behind the rise of poker more than anything, and there is a lot of glamour with poker right now," Furlong said. "Kids are drawn to celebrities and glamour. But from the IGC's standpoint, there is nothing glamorous about underage gambling. It has always been a driving force of our members to keep kids off Internet gambling sites."

What the Research Shows

Numerous studies have examined whether youths are more likely than adults to develop gambling problems, and the results have varied.

In their study, "Prospective Study of Youth Gambling Behaviors," researchers from the University of Minnesota found no evidence of stronger tendencies toward addition among youths. The group reported: "Concerns that early involvement in gambling and continued exposure to an environment that promotes gambling. . . would trigger a meaningful increase in the rate of heavy gambling during late adolescence and young adulthood were not confirmed by the study."

"Poker is a social event that can help teens learn appropriate behaviors while interacting with others."
- Ken Winters
University of Minnesota

They did point out, however, that minors who have psychological risk variables--early onset, parental gambling history, delinquency, and poorer school performances--were included in only one of the groups studied during the project.

Harvard researchers reported similar findings when looking at the correlation between gambling and college-aged students in the United States. The group looked at more than 10,000 students and found that the rate of those among the group who gambled weekly or more regularly was 2.6 percent, slightly below the rate of adults and other segments of the population that are regular gamblers.

But Elizabeth George of the North American Training Institute, a Minnesota-based institution specializing in youth gambling, pointed out that frequency of play isn't the only harbinger of problem gambling issues. Even anteing up $5 or $10 to play in a home game, she said, could lead to other forms of betting that could be harmful.

Some studies have shown that teens are two to three times as likely as adults to develop gambling problems. According to George, research has shown that 2 to 3 percent of teens who gamble develop addictions at some point in their lives, compared to 1 percent of those who started gambling as adults.

Dan Romer, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, worries about kids who take gambling too far. Romer feels that even though studies may not show that people who start gambling at a younger age are more susceptible to problem gambling, enough red flags have been raised to motivate parents to take notice of the habits of poker-playing teens.

As the director of research at the Adolescent Risk Communications Institute at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, Romer oversaw the 2003 Annenberg National Risk Survey of Youth. In that study, 8 percent of the young people surveyed showed signs of having gambling problems.

George, Romer and others believe that more long-term studies looking into the gambling habits of teens are needed.

Weighing the Dangers vs. the Benefits

Ken Winters, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at the University of Minnesota, feels that poker presents minimal danger compared to other activities popular among youths. The game has a greater upside, he said, than drugs, smoking and sex.

"Poker is a social event that can help teens learn appropriate behaviors while interacting with others," Winters explained.

Psychologist and toy guru Stevanne Auerbach agrees. The core elements of poker, he said, can go a long way in the cognitive development of teens and adolescents.

"Poker can help kids learn math, learn strategy, learn to think, learn to get involved," Auerbach said. "They learn probability and how to develop some strategy. It's going to help them in math and maybe in their social life."

The Roll of Schools

The surge in popularity of poker among school-aged children has forced many schools throughout the country to change rules. Some schools, such as New Trier High School near Chicago and Apple Valley High School outside Minneapolis, have banned poker on their campuses.

Dave Smiley, principal at Elgin High School in suburban Chicago, has begun enforcing an old ban on card and dice games.

"We're like church," Smiley told the Chicago Tribune. "You shouldn't be gambling in school."

On the other hand, Smiley doesn't see much wrong with playing poker off campus.

"I'm not going to be hypocritical," he said. "I think my own son has participated in some of these games, and he's in high school."

But the University of Pennsylvania's Romer feels that his 2003 survey findings are proof that schools should take an active roll in teaching kids about the dangers of gambling, just as they do about drugs and alcohol addiction.

He also said that government officials who oversee public gambling have a special responsibility to closely watch young people, who are allowed to gamble legally in many states as young as age 18.

Internet gambling is particularly worrisome, he said, because it can be done on the sly and is often less regulated.

A representative (who didn't want his company or name used for this story) of a leading online poker room said that Internet gambling operations have always been a target for those concerned with underage gambling, but such concerns are unfounded.

"I am not going to sit here and tell you that we have never had a minor play on our site," he said, "but I will say that we have stringent controls--maybe even more stringent than what you would find at a land-based casino in Las Vegas--to keep minors out. There are no advantages to us allowing minors to play on our sites, and those groups should see us more as an ally than a foe in the fight to keep underage gambling under control."

Hardly Child's Play - Popularity of Poker Among American Teens Raises Concerns is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith