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May 22
A Health Communication Campaign to Address Gambling Among College Students

Contributed by Aaron Diehr, PhD, CHES, Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Bachelor of Science in Public Health at Southern Illinois University and Marilyn Rule, MSW, Problem Gambling Program Director at Zepf Center in Toledo, Ohio


Researchers often choose to use health communication approaches (i.e., posters, videos, social media messages, and other materials containing images and text that attempt to educate and influence personal health decisions of targeted groups of people) because of their relative affordability in combination with their potential wide reach. Often, health communication campaigns also have the added benefit of increasing awareness about health concerns. To date, there are few studies featuring health communication approaches for gambling disorder among college students. As such, there remains a need to conduct message testing of gambling-related health communication materials with college students to first assess how effective they believe certain messages to be, whether they find the messages appealing, and if they understand the purposes of the messages. Information from this formative research can then be used to create more focused and effective materials.

Our recently published article in the Journal of Gambling Issues entitled "A coordinated health communication campaign addressing casino and sports gambling among college students" used health communication techniques to assess undergraduate college students' reactions to two posters. One had a message targeted toward casino gambling (specifically slot machines) and featured a tagline of "What are the odds?" with three slot machine reels displaying the word "broke." The other poster's message focused on sports betting and included the catchphrase, "Having trouble rebounding from your losses?" These sorts of health communication techniques have often been used to address common health concerns among college students—such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs—but have rarely been used to impact students' gambling decisions. Accordingly, our project sought to examine college students' reactions to a health communication approach for gambling prevention.

With the aid of a community behavioral health organization with a robust gambling prevention and treatment program, the research team designed two posters and initially pilot tested them on undergraduate students in a classroom setting. Based on students' feedback and commentary from members of the research team, we revised the posters and placed the updated 20 posters for one week each (for a total of 40 posters) in prominent areas of residence halls at a large Midwestern US university. At the end of each week, research assistants approached students and asked them multiple questions about the particular message, including whether they noticed it, understood it and believed it, as well as collecting demographic variables about the students.

Overall, most students found the design of both posters to be appealing. They reported that they understood the messages were designed to raise awareness about disordered gambling and to link individuals with local treatment if needed. For the slot machine ad, more females than males liked the ad—consistent with research indicating more females gamble on slot machines—and individuals who started gambling at a younger age liked it more than those who had begun gambling more recently. One quite useful finding was that individuals who had lost more money to gambling than they had planned to lose displayed significantly greater understanding of the ad. Traditionally, college students do not have extra money to gamble, so the prevention message with the words "broke" on the slot reels may have possibly had an effect on their understanding, thus potentially influencing future decisions regarding their gambling spending habits. For the sports betting ad, the only major finding was that white students understood the message of the poster better than Hispanic/Latino students. Finally, in response to open-ended questions, students brought up some important potential concerns, such as whether the use of brightly colored images might inadvertently promote gambling or trigger individuals who suffer from a gambling disorder.

The posters being a trigger to fuel the desire for gambling may have been an unintended consequence. Although extensive research has not been conducted regarding gambling graphics or images, we know how brightly colored lottery tickets, slot machines and flashing lights can be attractive. Therefore, the research team decided not to use such images for future prevention messages. In treatment, this information can be used to assist the client in identifying triggers, with recognition that the makers of such machines have already researched the appeal.

The formative data that we gathered from conducting this study can be used to develop more targeted and effective health communication materials or to inform potential interventions related to gambling disorder among college students. Since universities often give priority to other pressing issues in college health (such as alcohol and substance abuse prevention), the approach described in our study represents a relatively inexpensive method of building awareness of gambling disorder on campuses.

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