Gambling behaviors, usually via games, can begin sneakily—and surprisingly early in a kid's life. Here's what parents need to watch for.
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There have always been plenty of things for parents of teens and tweens to worry about, and these days, it seems there's more than ever. How can we manage the amount of screen time our kids get, especially when there's Zoom school to contend with? How do we know what types of information they're getting their hands on, now that so much of the world has moved online? How can we manage the emotional fallout of spending so long under the stress of a pandemic? Plus, of course, parents are still worried about all the age-old causes for concern as well: drug and alcohol abuse and other dangerous pastimes.

An image of a person holding a deck of cards.
Credit: Getty Images.

One thing that a lot of parents may not be keeping an eye out for is the danger of gambling. And that's despite the fact that potentially addictive games of chance are both common and insidious. What's more, the perils begin way before the teenage years and can impact kids' lives far into adulthood. 

Of course, the stereotypical gambling addict isn't a five-year-old opening birthday presents, or even a teen playing on their phone. Nonetheless, gambling can show up in some surprising places.

"Gambling can trigger our brains' reward system by releasing the 'feel-good' hormone, dopamine," says Dr. Amanda Gummer, psychologist, author, and founder of the Good Play Guide, "If children are exposed to a lot of this, their brains get used to this 'high,' and it takes more to trigger their reward system. In the long term, they may lose interest in other simple activities that don't have the adrenaline rush of gambling."

The studies that explore connections between early gambling experiences and problem gambling are scant, but they show what seems to be a correlation between the two. A 2004 study published in Psychiatry Online found that "compared with gamblers who had a late onset of gambling, those with an early onset wagered more frequently and had more severe medical and psychiatric problems."

Additionally, a study published in the British Medical Bulletin in 2020 found that, while overall rates of gambling in adolescents and children have dropped, "Online gambling is increasing in children and young people," a trend that seems to contribute to "lower self-esteem [...] and [using] more alcohol than their peers." 

This study also examined connections between gaming in adolescents and subsequent gambling addictions, something that Dr. Gummer also expressed concerns about, albeit in a different realm.

"We also see examples of gambling in children's video and mobile games," she said, warning against "'freemium' mobile games that hook children with a few basic features for free [and] games [that] may use addictive gameplay to keep children playing. For example, they may be growing virtual crops on a farm that they need to harvest every two hours, or the plants die. This gets children into a habit of playing frequently throughout the day, because they [feel that they] need to, not for the enjoyment of it."

These games may offer an initial free version, and then offer virtual items and upgrades for actual cash. This model encourages kids to start spending—and then, due to the influence of addictive gameplay, they can't quit. It's pretty sneaky. 

What's the problem with gambling anyway? 

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) describes a gambling addiction as "gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or vocational pursuits," and while it's not very common, this addiction is destructive enough to cause a great deal of concern.

According to the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), between 1-3% of Americans suffer from a gambling addiction that's at risk of leaving them and their loved ones destitute. That's nearly 5 million people. 

The consequences go much further than simply disrupting one's life, though. A study conducted by Dr. Timothy Fong and published in Psychiatry in 2005 found that "pathological gamblers are at increased risk to develop stress-related conditions, such as hypertension, sleep deprivation, cardiovascular disease, and peptic ulcer disease." And that's just the physical impact.

From a psychiatric perspective, Dr. Fong outlines a laundry list of repercussions, including everything from "major depressive episodes" to "heightened impulsivity [or] impaired decision-making." 

Gambling addiction is a combination of both genetic factors and behavior modeling, according to Christine Reilly, senior research director for the International Center for Responsible Gaming (ICRG).

"There is definitely a genetic component," said Reilly, "so doctors should always take a family history to ascertain if there's a history of addictive behaviors. But various environmental factors also play a role; such as parents' own gambling behavior." 

Are there safe forms of gambling?

Just like most other risky behaviors, gambling can't be made completely safe—even if you're only letting your kids help you scratch off a lottery ticket or playing a friendly game of family poker. That doesn't mean that you should throw out all your decks of cards, but it does mean that parents should be mindful of the types of gambling-esque behaviors they model.

Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, of the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University, recommends that parents should not host poker parties, for example, until "youth have better problem-solving skills and the ability to not only set limits but adhere to them." Dr. Derevensky also expresses concern about gamification and smartphone apps that are built with cunning technology to hook young people. "This is a growing problem," he tells Parents, "especially among youth. There are also social casino games and loot boxes, which are a form of gambling."

All of these may seem harmless and are activities that we, as adults, are drawn to. Unfortunately, these games, apps, and activities are not as benign as they seem. And there are a lot of them out there. 

What games and products should I avoid?

As mentioned above, one thing to be on the lookout for are "freemium" apps—the type that offer you a free version, but then have you paying for upgrades, specific items, or grab-bag type offers. These types of apps are ubiquitous in the online world, and can be very harmful.

Dr. Gummer recommends that parents use the site Common Space Media, a non-profit providing research-based tech and media recommendations, if they want to read up on specific apps or games. 

In the physical realm, there are also plenty of potential pitfalls. "One of the classic beginnings of a gambling problem is a 'big win,'" says Dr. Derevensky, "but a big win for an adult isn't the same as it is for a child or a teen." That's why lottery scratch cards, sports betting, and 'blind bags' can be so troublesome.

"Children are encouraged to keep buying more and more, for the potential reward of a "rare" card or figure," says Dr. Gummer, "Blind bags are usually at a low price point, too, so it's relatively easy for a parent to buy one here or there, for a stocking filler or as a treat when out shopping." One or two may not hook your kid on gambling, but it will certainly give them a taste of the "rush" that comes with it. That's why Dr. Gummer recommends partaking in these activities in moderation.

"By giving children a balanced approach to play," she says, "We can give them the chance to enjoy a little bit of this as a treat, while making sure they get a mix of other non-gambling activities, too."

How can I tell if my kids are engaging in problem gambling?

Parents should be on the lookout for a few telltale signs that indicate that things have gone too far. For one, someone who is dealing with a gambling addiction will exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"Young people tell researchers that gambling relieves their sense of helplessness or depression," says Reilly. You might also notice that your kids seem preoccupied, that they're suddenly forgetting their chores and other responsibilities. Or you might even notice cash or other valuable items go missing; while no one likes to imagine that their child may steal from them, this may well end up the case if they have a gambling habit to keep afloat. 

While these symptoms mimic other forms of addiction, such as abuse of drugs and alcohol, they're still informative to parents and caregivers who are concerned about their child's inclination to gamble.

"[Kids with a problem] will talk about gambling, watch gambling shows, and lie about their own gambling," says Dr. Derevensky, "Parents will find scratch lottery tickets in drawers, amongst other things." All of these behaviors, exhibited together, may be serious. 

What should I do about family members who gamble?

All of the literature stresses the importance of parental behavior in determining a child's healthy relationship to risky actions, including gambling. Unfortunately, we don't control the choices made by all the adults our kids interact with. If your kids' uncle or aunt brings them lottery tickets or has them betting on a poker game, it can be uncomfortable to intervene. 

Vanessa Gordon, who owns and publishes East End Magazine, says that it can be difficult for her to set boundaries with family members who enjoy gambling.

"My main concern is that my children, and others, will have a skewed version of reality in terms of gambling," she says, "Advertisements for online gambling, for example, [show] these incredible prizes that you could win—while diminishing the reality that the great majority of those who gamble lose money." 

When it comes to speaking with extended family members, Gordon says that, for her, the more important conversations happen within her family unit. While she does speak to her family about limiting the betting activities they engage in with her kids, she also makes sure to voice her concerns in a clear way, directly to her children.

"I do understand that [my family has] the best intentions, but bringing scratch cards home on a regular basis and then handing [my kids] the winning money is not the best. We should focus on earning in terms of work rather than earning gambling money," she says. As a compromise, she and her family have agreed that these activities are only to be engaged in for special occasions, like Christmas or a birthday. 

If you're looking for guidance on how to have those conversations, it's worthwhile to download the brochure made available by ICRG, entitled Talking with Children about Gambling. In addition, Gam-Anon offers support groups for family and friends of those who are suffering from a gambling addiction.

As parents, we all want the same thing: Healthy, happy kids who are living full and meaningful lives. Sometimes, though, it feels like the dangers of the modern world are too many and varied to keep up with. Fortunately, we can do a lot to keep our kids safe and on the right path.

By having candid conversations with the young people we're raising about risky behaviors, and by modeling a responsible way to interact with those behaviors ourselves, we can help them make informed decisions.