With responsible gambling education virtually nonexistent in Canadian curriculums and proliferation of the activity continuing unabated, McGill University problem gambling expert Dr. Jeff Derevensky has some tips for anyone that wants to help young people avoid harm.
The first is for adults to realize problem gambling is not isolated to adults.
“It could start at a very young age,” Derevensky told PlayCanada. “The youngest we’ve ever seen in our treatment clinic was 13 years old. He was stealing money in order to purchase lottery tickets.”
Even making fun bets with minors or buying them scratch lottery tickets as a Christmas stocking stuffer is a bad idea, said Derevensky, the director of The International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours founded at McGill in Montreal in 1992.
“You’re not going to buy a 14-year-old a can of beer and put it in his Christmas stocking,” Derevensky said. “And, yet, most people don’t think anything about it when it comes to a scratch ticket.
“We try to educate teachers. A lot of teachers have done wagering pools in the classroom. This is not an appropriate activity. We’ve had schools that have run casino nights for kids and their parents for real money. And we’re saying, ‘You wouldn’t run an alcohol night where everybody’s drinking.’ Again, this is not appropriate behaviour.
“What can start off small as an innocuous behaviour can actually increase dramatically, and then [young people can] get overly-involved.”
Adolescents have much higher rates of problem gambling
Problem gambling is particularly acute for young people, Derevensky said.
“We know adolescents have a much higher prevalence rates of gambling problems than adults do, but [young people] present in very different ways. They don’t lose their family. They’re still living with their family. They don’t lose a spouse… But they can be preoccupied with gambling. They will get overly-involved. They will lose a fair amount of money for their age or their occupation at the time.
“If a young person loses $1,000 that’s a serious amount of money. You and I wouldn’t be happy about losing it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. For a young person it actually could be. And then they could start getting involved in all kinds of criminal behaviours. Often, they will steal their parents’ credit cards and a lot of the money that is stolen is usually done first in the home. Why? Because if they get caught, the parents are not going to call the police. They’re not involved in big embezzlements. But, as they get older, they start writing bad cheques. They start stealing items from stores and then trying to resell those items to either friends or to other people their age. And so, it becomes problematic.
“When I talk to lottery operators, which are, basically, government both in the US and in Canada, they say, ‘What’s the big deal? The [problem gambling] prevalence rates are not as high as drug prevalence rates. They’re not as high as alcohol prevalence rates.’ But, like alcohol and drug use or abuse, what we know is that every problem gambler is negatively impacting anywhere between five and seven other people. So, if you have 2 or 3% of individuals having a problem, multiply that by five or seven, and now you see families getting involved and see peers getting involved, and this becomes really problematic.”
Problems compounded by the invincibility of youth
Derevensky said gambling has become much more normalized and socially acceptable as it has expanded rapidly. Minors, like the rest of us, are also bombarded with gambling ads. All that has increased the risks for young people.
“We know that prevalence rates of gambling amongst teenagers can be as high as 80%,” he said. “That’s not problem gambling, but the percentage actually [gambling].
“What we’ve seen is changes especially in terms of electronic forms of gambling where people can gamble online, both on a laptop or desktop as well as on your own cell phone. And so this has dramatically changed. [A cell phone] is a walking casino… The other thing in North America that has changed is there is much more sports wagering. And so now we have all the major teams getting involved, and major leagues getting involved in gambling. It’s just everywhere.
“And young people… think they’re smarter than adults, and they think they can predict the outcome of random events or even non-random events much better than we can as adults.”
Every four years since 2004, the Centre for Youth Gambling Problems has conducted a comprehensive survey of NCAA student-athletes and their sports wagering habits. Derevensky said the data from those surveys can be enlightening to those young people he treats for problem gambling.
“When I have someone who comes into my office who has a sports betting problem, I show them the NCAA data that shows that there is a certain number of athletes who are trying to alter the outcome of the game. So, even though you think you’re really smart, you can’t know what’s happening. And so really, wait until you’re older.
“I’m not against gambling. I’m just against young people gambling because they can get over-involved in this behaviour.”
Responsible gambling education and funding needs to keep pace
Informing young people about the dangers of gambling should involve the same amount of education and funding as similar high-risk behaviours.
That’s the advice from Keith Whyte, the executive director of the US-based National Council on Problem Gambling. In 2022, he told our sister site PlayIllnois:
“It’s a national public health issue. We’ve got to look at it just like we do other risky behaviours. [Thanks to education] we’ve seen a massive drop in teen smoking, a massive drop in teen drinking. We know that these campaigns work, but it’s got to be competent, it’s got to be an effort by everybody and it’s got to be well funded.”
Yet, while gambling has grown exponentially, particularly in Ontario, responsible gambling education falls well short when compared to other public health issues, Whyte said.
That means it’s important for adults to talk about gambling with the younger people in their lives. And, it’s critical to do it before teenagers have had a lot of personal exposure to gambling.
Whyte said this is especially true when it comes to student athletes and sports betting.
“There’s a ton of risk-taking among youth in general and we know that if you’re an athlete, you’re likely to take more risks,” he said.
He points to a 2020 NCAA gambling participation study of some 45,000 student athletes. Recent results showed that 90% of male student-athletes reported they began betting on sports before coming to college. Whyte calls that a “terrifying statistic” and added:
“If we’re not educating every high school athlete it’s too late because we can’t do prevention anymore.”
What adults should tell young people about gambling
Whyte said parents or guardians should avoid advocating gambling abstinence with their teenagers. Instead, they should focus on harm reduction.
He calls this the “5 knows.” Specifically, teenagers should know:
- That there is always a choice not to gamble. Not all of their peers are gambling.
- The legal gambling age for each gambling activity. It varies between provinces and depends on the kinds of gambling.
- The health risks, especially the warning signs of problem gambling.
- How to gamble responsibly, and that includes setting limits.
- Where to go to get help.
Three big warning signs
Derevensky said he works to educate young people to look for the following warning signs:
- You have had a big gambling win
- You’re trying to make up gambling losses
- Your thoughts are consumed with the next gambling activity
All are strong reasons not only to wait until you are mature enough and legally able to gamble, but also to have enough disposable income to do it.
“Wait until you have a substantial amount of money, then you can set time and money limits,” Derevensky said. “Most people, even problem gamblers, set limits… You really have to learn how to set limits and adhere to those limits.”
What parents can do to keep young people from gambling harm
The Centre for Youth Gambling Problems also has a number of tips about what parents can do. They include:
- Inform yourself about the risks associated with gambling activities.
- Limit your own gambling participation, as you are an important role model for your child.
- Explain why the risk of gambling is greater for teens than for adults.
- Explain to your child the difference between responsible gambling and excessive and risky gambling.
- Clearly state your position on gambling participation by teenagers.
- Discuss rules and expectations and follow through with consequences.
- Do not offer any lottery products to your children or teenagers as gifts or rewards.
- Listen to what your child has to say about gambling and encourage discussion.
- Notice any unusual changes in your child’s behaviour.
- Be aware of their Internet use.