One of the better established facts, based on research carried out in several countries, is that young people are especially vulnerable to problem gambling. It has been suggested that the problem of young people’s problem gambling may have been growing as opportunities to gamble have increased. Most people would agree how very important this is. Not only can it cause great distress to the young people involved and to their families, interfering with the development of good mental health and a smooth transition to adulthood, but there is also good evidence that the earlier in life young people start to gamble the greater the risk they run of having problems with gambling later on.

We are talking about a broad range of ages here, including those under 16 (officially classed as ‘children‘), 16 to 17 year olds (officially ‘young people‘) and those in their very late teens and early 20s (young adults).

A number of reports suggest that gambling amongst teenagers and young adults in Britain continues to be a problem and might in fact be getting worse. For a start, the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey of ‘adults’ (16 and over), which suggested that there had been a 40 to 50% increase in the prevalence of adult problem gambling in the three years since the previous survey in 2007, showed that the biggest increase in problem gambling had been in young adults aged 16 to 24, the age group with the highest prevalence. A number of other relevant reports have appeared just recently. The report of the 2012/13 Scottish Health Survey, for example, which for the first time included questions about gambling, showed that, excluding the National Lottery, more gambling, and gambling on a larger number of forms of gambling, was associated with young adulthood, especially so for men. There was also a flurry of media interest recently following a report by GamCare that an increasing number of their clients with gambling problems are young adults.

Most concerning is the report of the Young People Omnibus Survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Lottery Commission. The report was published last month (September 2013). Over 2000 11 to 15-year-olds from over 100 state maintained schools across England and Wales filled out questionnaires in class between February and April 2013 (some 16 year olds also took part but were excluded from the main results). No less than 15% of this sample of young teenagers had engaged in some form of gambling in the last week (20% of boys and 10% of girls), 13% on something other than National Lottery (NL) games. The percentages saying that they had gambled on particular forms of gambling in the last week is high when compared with the equivalent percentages for adults (16 years and over) according to the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. For example, 5% reported playing gambling machines (compared to 2% of adults). There was even 1% who had personally placed a bet at a betting shop; and 1% who had visited a betting shop to play gaming machines. Two per cent said that they had personally gone into a shop to buy a lottery ticket without a parent or other adult being present.

The results for online gambling are particularly worrying. We already know that engagement in online gambling is increasing in Britain and internationally, is more strongly associated with problem gambling than engagement in non-online forms of gambling, and is more heavily concentrated amongst young people than is the case for other forms of gambling. There is evidence, therefore, that online gambling may be particularly dangerous and that young people may be most at risk. According to a recent comprehensive international review of internet gambling,‘... current age verification measures are not sufficiently effective in preventing underage play... few sites have highly reliable measures to assess the age and identity of the individual actively gambling online at any one time’. A complication is that many online sites offer ‘practice’ or ‘free play’ games, typically with no age restrictions but often linked to real money sites or games, and assumed by many to be a way of training future customers. It is quite widely believed amongst people in public health and in gambling regulation that online gambling represents the greatest challenge to be faced in the next few years in the prevention of problem gambling.

Figures from the Young People Omnibus Survey regarding the playing of practice or free games online are particularly worrying. As many as 13% acknowledged doing this in the last seven days (18% boys, 8% girls), mostly involving gambling such as poker or slot or fruit machine style games using social network sites such as Facebook or using a smart phone or tablet, with smaller numbers using free online poker websites, free demo games on gambling websites, or other free practice games on the Internet. Those who had played practice or free games were much more likely to have gambled in the last week, to have played the National Lottery in the last week, to have played cards for money with friends, and to have visited a betting shop to play gambling machines.

There is also evidence from the Young People Omnibus Survey that teenage gambling is strongly associated with family poverty and area deprivation. For example, those attending schools in high deprivation areas were significantly more likely to have gambled in the last week, and to have played practice or free games; and of those who had ever bought an NL ticket, children living in families in the least affluent third of families were more likely than those in the most affluent third to have bought NL tickets on their own. The Scottish Health Survey also found a strong association between area deprivation and problem gambling amongst adults.

Another relevant report that has come my way is a report of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). In response to industry concerns over the impact of CAP’s extended restrictions on advertising on betting websites, and following a period of public consultation to which Gambling Watch UK gave written evidence, CAP has decided to make an amendment to its Code to allow ‘marketers’ to feature people under the age of 25 on betting websites where they are illustrating a bet being offered for sale. An example would be a well-known footballer illustrating a bet on his performance in a match. According to the international review of internet gambling research, referred to earlier, it has been shown that young people are highly influenced by gambling advertising. Amongst reasonable rules it suggests should be adopted regarding the advertising of gambling is that, ‘Gambling advertisements should not feature celebrities popular among youth’. Many sporting celebrities are likely to be in the 18 to 25-year-old bracket. When it comes to the betting industry trying to have things its own way, and in the process failing to show proper social responsibility, a good case in point is the trade-off they negotiated with the government to allow betting advertisements to be shown on television before the 9 pm watershed when sporting events, such as England’s recent World Cup qualifier football matches, are being shown.

One of the three stated objectives of gambling regulation in Britain is, ‘Protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling’. We have to ask whether the Gambling Commission and the Department for Culture Media and Sport, which leads on gambling for the government, are fulfilling their responsibilities when it comes to protecting children and young people, and whether the gambling industry is properly exercising social responsibility with regard to children and young people.

Further reading

Gainsbury, S. 2012. Internet Gambling: Current Research Findings and Implications. New York: Springer.

Scottish Health Survey, 2012 edition, volume 1, main report. A National Statistics Publication for Scotland, The Scottish Government (www.scotland,gov.uk).

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangla, D., Griffiths, M., Hussey, D., & Dobbie, F. (2011)  British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Gambling Commission.

Young People Omnnibus: A research study on gambling amongst 11-16 year olds on behalf of the National Lottery Commission, September 2013 (NLC website).

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