Young People and Problem Gambling

GamShare Issue 2, Spring 2010

Jane RigbyeJane Rigbye, Head of Education Development, GamCare

Opportunities to gamble have increased significantly in the UK over the past decade, both offline and online. Young people today are the first generation to grow up with gambling being seen by many in our society as an acceptable form of entertainment and leisure activity.

Research conducted a decade ago demonstrated that young people may participate in gambling activities with more frequency than other potentially addictive behaviours, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. Canadian research has also shown that young people are more likely to ‘try out’ gambling at a much earlier age than they try drugs or alcohol.

In the UK there is a unique situation in that, unlike much of the rest of the world, young people can legally gamble on various categories of fruit or slot machine. 16 year olds can also play the Lottery.

Gambling companies are also now allowed to advertise their products on television. Regulations preclude this advertising from being designed to appeal to a young audience, however many channels air poker tournaments and other gambling programmes, often featuring celebrities such as actors, singers and sportsmen. Poker players such as Phil Ivey and Annie Duke are now being recognised as sporting celebrities in their own right, with endorsements and sponsorship deals to prove it.

Although such programmes are aimed at adults, like many other forms of adult entertainment they clearly appeal to young people. In this environment of decreasing regulation and increasing accessibility and advertisement, it is likely that more young people are going to take part in gambling activities.

Whilst not all young people who gamble go on to develop problems with their gambling behaviour, a significant minority of young people in the UK have been reported to have a gambling problem. Recent research has shown that 2% of 12 to 15 year olds and 0.9% of those aged 16-24 have been estimated to have a gambling problem – that equates to around 127,500 young people exhibiting gambling problems in the UK. This compares with an adult prevalence rate of just 0.6%.

Problem gambling has been correlated with a number of negative outcomes for young people. It has been linked to poor mental health (including major depression, anxiety, ADHD, low self esteem and personality disorders) and crime, alcohol and substance abuse, poor educational attainment and other delinquent behaviour. Many adults presenting for treatment with gambling problems later in life have reported that they began gambling during their childhood, and problem gambling in adults has been linked to earlier onset of gambling behaviour.

Young people have been reported to have a particular vulnerability to developing gambling problems. They tend to have been introduced to gambling by family and friends, who may portray gambling as a harmless, fun activity, or who perhaps may gamble excessively themselves.

Older family members and friends may also act as an access point to age-restricted gambling activities, perhaps by allowing them to use their online gambling accounts or buying lottery tickets or placing a bet on their behalf. Interestingly it has been reported that only 5% of parents would try to stop their child from taking part in gambling activities; whereas the vast majority of parents would prevent their child from taking drugs, and over 60% would impose restrictions on alcohol use. 

In addition to the role of the attitudes of family and friends towards gambling, it has been suggested that young people typically exhibit egocentric characteristics and have a tendency to believe in their own invincibility to the dangers of risky behaviours. Developmental psychologists have suggested that this may be due to a young person’s inability to think critically about their behaviours which may be developed in early adolescence but for some doesn’t occur until adulthood, if at all.

Studies have shown that brain development typically does not complete until around the age of 25. And if that wasn’t enough, young people have also been shown to have a lack of comprehension of the role of statistical probability and odds, and a tendency to believe in luck and hold superstitious beliefs, all of which may impact gambling behaviour.

While not all young gamblers will go on to develop a problem, it is clear that the effects of problem gambling for young people are serious and warrant a sustained and directed approach to addressing the issues surrounding the behaviour.

The rate of problem gambling in adolescents is over three times as high as it is for adults. However very few young people present for treatment or ask for help or advice around gambling – in GamCare’s last annual report less than 3% of helpline callers were aged below 18 years, and no under-18s entered into counselling.

The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board has highlighted the importance of developing an effective education and prevention strategy. My new role at GamCare is to look at ways in which we can reach out to a younger audience, and use our experience, knowledge and expertise to help design and deliver this strategy.

We hope to develop a programme that encompasses both education and prevention initiatives, alongside the delivery of treatment options that young people feel are approachable, accessible and useful. We want to identify partners we can work with and learn from, and also to ensure that relevant research and evaluation is properly prioritised.

I look forward to reporting on our progress with these initiatives in a future issue of GamShare, but in the meantime I would welcome any thoughts or ideas – please email me at

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