If you think that gambling is still a “strictly for adults only” enterprise, you are sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, gambling is fast becoming an epidemic among children and adolescents, with kids as young as 9 years old getting hooked. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that around 4% of American children are already addicted to gambling, with an anti-compulsive gambling advocate calling the situation a “hidden epidemic.”
Gambling and Kids
Gambling refers to the betting of money or anything of value on a game with uncertain result. Traditional gambling mediums include card games, casino machines, and betting on the outcome of sporting activities like soccer, boxing or horse racing. Gambling used to be a highly regulated (albeit multi-billion dollar) adult industry. But because of the advent of the internet, the relaxation of some state’s gambling laws to accommodate children, and the proliferation of lotteries and gaming arcades open to the general public, gambling has reached the younger population. Loss of parental control and financial difficulty in the family also add to the phenomenon. The situation is so bad that some kids end up owing bookies hundreds of thousands of dollars long before they even step into high school!
Gambling in itself is not bad; many people enjoy social gambling as a past time, a way to relax and unwind. But children are particularly vulnerable to becoming pathological gamblers – gamblers who are unable to resist the urge to gamble despite the serious consequences of their behavior. This is because young children and teens have yet to develop skills in managing impulses, assessing risks and chances, and appreciating the financial value of money surrendered to gambling hosts. Most of the time, children (like adults with gambling disorders) are stuck in the excitement of risk-taking and the thrill of a winning streak, with no awareness of the long-term negative consequences.
What can Parents Do?
As a parent, it’s important that you are aware of the signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling in children. Remember, in this age of technology, gambling behavior can be easy to hide (there are even betting agencies that collect simply by cellphone texts!). But like any addiction, the more serious it becomes, the more difficult it is to conceal.
What should parents look out for? Be mindful of secretive internet or newspaper browsing; your child may be following the results of an event he has a stake on. Watch out as well for unexplained loss or gain of money and material possessions. Check for sudden or gradual drop in grades, absences in school or loss of interest in tasks and activities that used to interest them before. Monitor their language; see if they are more prone to using gambling terms during conversations. Be aware of the people they interact with everyday — they might already be setting regular appointments with bookies.
If you’ve discovered that your child has a gambling problem, it’s best to confront him or her about it right away. Impulse control disorders rarely go away on their own, as kids have lost the ability to regulate their own behavior. Parental control and intervention is necessary. If the problem is only recent and mild, parents may be able to handle it on their own. However, when gambling is already more entrenched, professional intervention will be necessary. In some cases, parents may directly contact the casinos or the bookies to ensure that a child will not be allowed to gamble anymore. Implements can also be confiscated, such as credit cards, computers and cellphones. A child may also be grounded for awhile, allowing the compulsion to “cool off.” For serious young gamblers, mandatory visits to a mental health professional must be included along with these types of restrictions and guidelines. It is also very helpful for parents to attend twelve-step programs for family members of addicts while the child him or herself, attends similar regular meetings for addicts. Often, family therapy will be a useful adjunct to other interventions. Doing everything possible as soon as possible can help young gamblers heal their compulsion. On the other hand, ignoring the behavior or simply telling a child to “stop it” may lead to a lifetime of debilitating, destructive gambling activities.