Kids as Young as 11 Are Becoming Addicted to Online Gambling
Marc Lefkowitz began gambling at age 9 and was playing poker with his friends at 12. He wasn't great at sports, but he could win in the card game.
"I was bullied as a kid," says Lefkowitz. "Here was something I could do. I could always win in poker."
Not always, exactly. Lefkowitz loved the rush of the win, but he didn't quit while he was ahead. And he wound up losing—big. In college, he gambled so much and found himself in so much debt that he had to drop out.
At 24, Lefkowitz hit rock bottom and sought help for his gambling addiction. Today, he's an international certified gambling counselor and director of program management at Kindbridge, an online therapy platform. He has been in recovery for four decades and has never had to navigate the world of online and app-based gambling as an addict. But he knows what an issue it could be.
"I can't imagine being a teenager today," says Lefkowitz.
Why Online Gambling Is Accessible to Kids
The legal age for gambling in the United States is 18 or 21, depending on the state. But Katie Paul, the director of Tech Transparency Project (TTP), a nonprofit watchdog organization, says digital platforms have made gambling more accessible over the last 10 years. And kids see these ads, even if they aren't of legal gambling age.
"Even if tech platforms prohibit or restrict gambling ads by age, their inability or unwillingness to enforce their own policies gives advertisers relatively free rein to promote whatever they like to young audiences," says Paul.
In 2021, TTP put that hypothesis to the test. It ran an ad experiment three separate times. "We submitted Facebook ads for gambling and a range of other inappropriate topics [like alcohol] targeted at teen users, and all three times Facebook approved the ads in a matter of hours," explains Paul.
Other studies and surveys have also highlighted a growing problem of kids seeing gambling ads. A U.K. study of more than 600 people between the ages of 11 and 78, published in October 2021, found nearly half of children see gambling advertising each week and a quarter see it daily. And underage individuals found gambling ads on Twitter almost four times more appealing than the adults the ads were targeting.
"Gambling ads may use more humor or celebrity endorsement or memes that may appeal to children and young people, so that may drive increased popularity among kids versus adults," notes Mike Robb, the senior director of research at Common Sense Media, a resource for entertainment and technology recommendations for families.
In 2020, researchers at Ipsos Mori and the University of Stirling in the U.K. also released concerning data. It found 96 percent of those ages 11 to 24 saw marketing messages for gambling. Sixty six percent reported seeing these promotions on social media, including on YouTube and while scrolling through Facebook.
Ads can prompt kids to seek opportunities to gamble, and it's never been easier. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, passed in 2006, made it illegal to operate a gambling website in the U.S. But it's not illegal to gamble on an online gambling website, so U.S. citizens can log on to international sites like Bovada and BetOnline to place bets. Fantasy sports leagues, which often involve pools and wagers, are exempt from the act.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled against the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA), opening the door for each state to make their own laws on sports betting. Today, more than a dozen states, including New Jersey, Nevada, and Mississippi, and the District of Columbia permit online sports betting in some form. More states are expected to follow. And online casinos are currently legal in six sates—New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Betting on horse racing online is also possible in more than half of states.
Though the sites may have a legal age, Paul says underage kids circumvent those with ease. In 2021, TTP researchers downloaded a gambling app using an account for a stimulated 14-year old. They were easily able to download the app and deposit and withdraw money.
"This is one of many examples of insufficient enforcement by the platforms regardless of what restrictions, policies, or laws are in place," Paul says.
Why Gambling Ads Can Be Harmful to Kids
Know the Odds, an organization that seeks to raise awareness for problem gambling and prevent addiction, reports that children introduced to gambling by age 12 are four times more likely to develop a problem. The researchers at Ipsos Mori and the University of Stirling also found children's exposure to online gambling ads made them more likely to bet in the future.
Robb says part of that may be that a person's brain does not fully develop until their twenties. "Their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until they turn 25, so their understanding of risky behaviors [isn't as refined]," Robb says.
Ads and easy access to apps have made gambling, which Lefkowitz says was once considered "taboo," more appealing. Robb agrees: "It can normalize gambling and make it look desirable and enjoyable."
Gambling can become a serious issue. It's listed in the DSM-5 manual, which mental health providers use to diagnose conditions as an addiction. Up to 5 percent of youth, ages 12 to 17, have a gambling problem, while 10 to 14 percent are at risk for developing one, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. "Gambling has its ups and downs just like drugs and alcohol," says Lefkowitz. "Betting on a game, the excitement of it—it's that constant rush, and that rush works, especially for a teenager going through [changes]. It's a way to escape."
Yet, it often doesn't get the same attention in schools and with parents as drug and alcohol addictions. And Lefkowitz says that needs to change.
"There's marketing to parents on what to do about drugs and alcohol, but there's not the same with gambling," he says. "Gambling is a lot of times way more devastating because it's very easy to hide. You can't smell blackjack on somebody's breath."
Symptoms of Gambling Addiction
It can be hard for parents to pick up on a gambling addiction. In many ways, Lefkowitz says the symptoms mimic those of alcohol and drug addiction, including:
- Frequently asking for money
- Cutting school
- Seeming distracted, sad, or anxious
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Decreased interest in usual activities
- Missing money or valuables
Lefkowitz says parents often notice these symptoms and send their children for a drug test. When it comes back negative, they drop the issue. But Lefkowitz recommends looking deeper for other, more distinct signs of gambling, including:
- Suddenly having extra money and expensive items
- Gambling apps on their phone or websites in their computer browser cache
- Increased interest in sports—not just a favorite team, but scores from multiple games
- Checking their phone constantly during sporting events
- A sudden knowledge of gambling terms, like "spread" and "line"
- Intense interest if other people start talking about gambling
If gambling is affecting someone's day-to-day functioning, including schoolwork and extracurricular activities, it's a problem, Lefkowitz says.
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How to Talk to Your Kid About Gambling
Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services in Greenwich, Connecticut, says parents can start addressing gambling starting around the age of 9.
"Adolescents develop cognitive processes that include decision-making, problem-solving skills, and an ability to commit to choices that help foster competent decisions," says Dr. Schiff. "Talking to them about gambling as a risky behavior before that age will help make a difference in how they respond to and engage in gambling."
Navigating the topic can be difficult. Experts share tips.
Time it right
Try to make the conversation seem natural rather than a planned lesson. "Children will be more receptive to the message if you approach it in a light and conversational way," says Dr. Schiff.
For example, you may see a casino ad with people having fun while watching a football game. Lefkowitz suggests using it as a cue to discuss gambling by saying, "You know, not all those people are having fun," and then discussing how sometimes people wager too much and lose.
Aim for short and sweet
Tweens and teens don't want a lecture during a coffee date or while watching the big game. "Children and teens will probably tune out before you get your message across [if it's a lecture], whereas a short conversation will really drive the message home," says Dr. Schiff.
Don't feel the need to cover everything in one sitting. A two-way conversation during a commercial break is more effective than a half-hour, one-sided discussion where your teen's focus shifts back toward the game.
Your child, tween, or teen may know more about gambling than you think. Be sure to gauge their knowledge.
"Ask them what they've heard about gambling, or what they think they already know, so you can better understand where they are coming from," says Dr. Schiff. "Give them the opportunity to air their questions and concerns, so you can address them head-on and provide answers that are accurate and well-informed."
Tailor your conversation
Though sports betting is the most accessible, not every teen is into sports. Schiff says a child will relate to the conversation more if parents customize it to their interests. For example, video game-loving kids may understand the concepts behind loot boxes and esport betting.
"Provide some education, talk to them about the odds and the risks, and explain probability," she says. "This can help them make better choices down the road."
Resources for Parents
If your child has a gambling problem, help is available. Resources include:
- Gambler's Anonymous: A 12-step program aimed at helping individuals overcome gambling addiction.
- Gam-Anon: A support group for parents and families of children with gambling issues.
- A therapist specializing in gambling addiction. Parents can find therapists through Psychology Today, a child's pediatrician, or their insurance company.
- State helplines. Lefkowitz suggests googling your state and "problem gambling." States like New York have resources for those with addiction and their families.