Is Your Teen’s Gambling a Problem?

by MCF Program Coordinator – Problem Gambling Nancy Quidas

Many teenagers are gambling and, as parents, you may not even know about it. Recent research revealed that approximately 4-5% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 are struggling with a gambling addiction. Another 10-14% are at risk of developing an addiction, which means they are already showing signs of losing control. If parents and professionals do not help them to address this, it can have devastating consequences that will impact the rest of their lives.

Gambling often begins innocently with penny bets during family poker games, a few dollars wagered with group of friends during March Madness, a dollar bet on their favorite horse at the track or a handful of scratch-off tickets received as a gift. New games available as mobile and online apps allow teens to wager fake money and property for opportunities to gain or win. These activities can give a small “rush” of excitement and may encourage young people to seek more opportunities to gamble. In fact, studies show that children who are introduced to gambling – even these seemingly harmless activities – by age 12 are four times more likely to become problem gamblers.

There are many ways to help your children avoid developing a gambling problem. As with all other risks teens are tempted to engage in like drinking and using drugs, talking openly about the dangers is important. Be honest with them about the “high” that some people get temporarily from addictive behaviors, including gambling, and that the high is usually followed by very sad or fearful emotions. Talk to them about the actual risks of placing bets and the low odds of winning. Show them that they can have fun with card games or the Super Bowl without placing bets and how they can use their money in other exciting ways. Above all, consider the example you are setting and how your actions often speak louder than your words.

To identify whether your teen – or their friends – may be struggling with a gambling problem or addiction, look for these signs:

  • Spending hours on online gaming sites
  • Obsessing about sports scores
  • Planning or attending poker nights or other activities
  • Borrowing money from friends and family
  • Stealing money or “borrowing” credit cards
  • Selling personal belongings
  • Having large amounts of cash that cannot be explained
  • Having debt that cannot be explained
  • Parting with some long-time friends
  • Interacting with strangers by phone or online
  • Withdrawing from regular social or sport activities
  • Appearing distracted, anxious, moody and/or depressed
  • Exhibiting secretive, defensive and/or aggressive behaviors
  • Being absent from or not performing well at school or work
  • Breaking curfew regularly

What can you do if you suspect your teen has a problem or may be heading down the wrong path? The first step is to speak with them and ask direct questions about their gambling – what sites or activities they are involved with, how it makes them feel, and what they might be worried about in relation to their activities.

Whether you are just wondering if there is a problem and not sure how to have the conversation, or know there is a problem and are ready for help and support, reach out to MCF. We have trained family support staff who themselves have had experience with a loved one with a gambling problem. Our services are free to all, thanks to publicly funded grants that support our work.

Here are some other resources that can help:

Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling

National Council on Problem Gambling

The Dangers of Youth Gambling Addiction E-booklet

Prevalence of Adolescent Problem Gambling: A Systematic Review of Recent Research

Adolescent Problem Gambling: A Prevention Guide for Parents E-booklet