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Know when to fold 'em: teens gamble with their future.

Today, legal gambling flourishes in every state except Hawaii and Utah. According to a Gallup poll, gambling in the United States has overtaken baseball in popularity. Between 1974 and 1995, the total amount of money legally wagered nationwide increased from $17.3 billion to $550 billion.

Gambling is not a new phenomenon. People have gambled since the dawn of civilization. Gambling was known to the Babylonians and the ancient Chinese. William Shakespeare wrote about it, and the Bible refers to it as "casting lots." Proceeds from an 1860s Massachusetts state lottery were used for educational purposes, including seed money for building Harvard University.

Teen gambling

Ten years ago, the problem of teen gambling did not register even a blip on the radar screen of addiction professionals. Recent scientific research findings from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have revealed that young people are at an elevated risk of developing a gambling addiction. Teens and college students are three to four times more likely to experience serious gambling-related problems during their lifetime compared with their adult counterparts. This is important information for those who are professional treatment providers.

It is important for addiction professionals to know why kids gamble. For many teens, gambling has little to do with money. Rather, they gamble because of problems at home, role modeling, low self-esteem, and avoidance of pain and grief.

Problems at home and role modeling. Teens may use gambling as an escape from the harsh realities of parental alcohol and drug addiction, gambling addiction, violence, or abuse. Other teenagers may model adult behavior. Gambling can often be a family affair, where children accompany parents and other adults to the racetrack. Lottery tickets given to teens by respected adults, bets on sporting events, and football boards are other gates through which young people enter the exciting and magical world of gambling.

Low self-esteem. People love winners. For teenagers with poor self-esteem, winning a bet can provide an instant, though temporary, boost in confidence and perceived esteem by their peers. They may feel as though they have developed a system for winning that will continue to impress their peers and will allow them to generate extra income while having fun.

Avoidance of pain and grief. As addiction professionals know only too well, the teen years often involve loss, trauma and grief resulting from, for example, parents divorcing, the death of grandparents, being cut from the football team, or breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Most teens get through these traumatic times with the help of friends and family. Others, however, especially those who feel isolated and without friends or a supportive family, may turn to something else to anesthetize themselves from the pain of loss. The "something" they turn to could be alcohol, drugs, or gambling.

Why professionals should be concerned

According to Howard Shaffer, Ph.D., C.A.S., director of Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions, "Once initiated, many patterns of behavior are difficult to stop. For example, people who began smoking as adolescents represent the majority of adult smokers. Prevention efforts reveal that by reducing the onset of certain behaviors, the economics of health care can be improved greatly. To minimize the difficulties that problematic behaviors pose for society--drinking, substance use, smoking or gambling-related problems--we must either prevent or delay the onset of these behavior patterns or minimize the negative consequences of involvement."

Research reveals that nearly 70 percent of all high school seniors have gambled within the past year.

Shaffer, Hall, Walsh and Vander Bilt (1995) have examined some of the adverse consequences often faced by young people who gamble. Their study revealed a wide range of detrimental social and emotional consequences of gambling in its student sample. The study found that among young people with a gambling problem, 79 percent lied to conceal the extent of their gambling; 79 percent engaged in illegal behaviors to finance their gambling; and 64 percent were unable to stop gambling when they wanted to.

Of additional importance for addiction professionals, clinical evidence suggests that drug abuse and gambling addiction overlap. Among Minnesota adolescents who participated in a 1990 survey, 62.3 percent of those classified as "problem gamblers" also admitted to using illegal substances at least monthly.

Given this kind of information, it's clear that teen gambling behavior should be an area of concern for addiction professionals.

The hidden addiction

An addiction to gambling has often been called "the hidden addiction" because, unlike the case of alcohol or drug problems, there are few observable signs. An addicted gambler doesn't stagger or weave while walking or have needle marks on the arms, telltale breath, or a crumpled car fender. There are, however, signs of a gambling problem in a young person that are important to recognize.

Questions an addiction professional can ask a teen about gambling include:

* Do you prevent your family and friends from knowing how much you gamble?

* Do you gamble with money that is intended to be used for other reasons such as car insurance, savings for college, clothing, sports equipment or lunch?

* Do you often gamble longer than you wanted to and lose more money than you intended?

* Have you ever sold prized possessions such as a musical instrument, sporting equipment, or clothing in order to have money to gamble?

* Do your friends ever tell you that you gamble too much?

* Is gambling the main source of what you do to feel good about yourself?

* Do you ever lie about whether you gamble or how much you lose?

* Do you miss school, sports events or other events because of gambling?

* Have you ever stolen money or property in order to gamble or pay gambling debts?

Knowing the signs of a gambling problem is the first step in early detection of a serious gambling addiction.

Like alcoholism or drug dependence, a gambling addiction can disrupt a young person's relationships, family life, college studies, sports opportunities, mental health, and future career. Alerting addiction professionals to the attendant dangers of teen gambling and the power of that addiction is the first step in prevention, early detection and recovery for an addicted gambler.

Resources on Teenage Gambling

The North American Training Institute (NATI),, specializes in prevention and education of adolescent and senior citizen compulsive gambling. It also distributes research-based information on gambling addiction. For more information, send e-mail to or call (218) 722-1503.

The website, A Cool Magazine for Kids Concerned About Gambling, is designed and hosted by NATI. A kid-friendly site, Wannabet has a 15-year-old junior editor and uses sound effects, cartoons and animation that keep kids coming back. The site has been featured on the national cable show Nick News.

The Wager (, a research project of the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions. Many of its weekly short articles about gambling addiction deal with teen gambling.

Elizabeth M. George is chief executive of the North American Training Institute and a member of the Addiction Professional editorial advisory board. She serves as associate editor for program features for the Journal of Gambling Studies and is co-editor of a new book, Futures at Stake: Youth, Gambling and Society, published by Nevada Press.
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Title Annotation:Gambling
Author:George, Elizabeth M.
Publication:Addiction Professional
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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