adolescent in this section is used to refer to a broad group of young individuals aged 12 to 24 years. These ages are highlighted here since this is when young people are most vulnerable to developing mental health challenges, including problem gambling (Kourgiantakis et al., 2017). Learn more about
why this age group was selected.
A variety of risk factors, signs and consequences related to problem gambling affect young people. In addition, different developmental tasks, issues and rates of problem gambling are evident within the 12-to-24-year age group. For instance, experiences and stressors may be different for teenagers who are starting to become more independent from their guardians compared to young adults who are leaving home. These differences need to be considered when thinking about risks, signs, consequences and treatments. Learn more about
different development tasks as they relate to problem gambling within this age group.
The social attitudes of teachers, mental health professionals and parents toward gambling can also impact adolescent gambling behaviour. Increasing awareness and understanding among professionals and parents can help reduce the risks and harms associated with adolescent problem gambling.
How are adolescents different from adults who gamble?
The characteristics below are specific to young people and can put youth at higher risk for problem gambling:
- Adolescence is a time when people are most inclined to take risks.
- Youth are less likely to foresee future negative consequences stemming from a pattern of problematic gambling. This may be explained by neurological development as well as limited lived experience.
- Youth may have more disposable income because guardians may cover their expenses.
- Youth who are financially supported by guardians or family members may be sheltered from some of the financial consequences of problem gambling, among other consequences, and may be unlikely to see the need for treatment.
In addition, youth may have compelling reasons to gamble that are related to their sense of self. Some of these reasons are:
- to be included in a peer group that gambles
- to complete a rite of passage once they are legally allowed to gamble
- to forge a personal identity
- to seemingly fast-track their way to financial independence and avoid dependence on minimum-wage jobs.
Adolescents are a diverse population, and so are people with gambling problems. For example, within the 12-to-24-year age group, different developmental tasks (milestones) exist that may affect or be affected by gambling behaviours. Below are some examples.
Developing an identity separate from parents and family―Adolescence marks a time when youth are becoming more independent and developing an identity separate from their parents and family, both behaviourally and cognitively. In the context of problem gambling, this may mean that youth who are not yet fully autonomous from their parents may not recognize their parents’ or family’s gambling involvement as problematic, normalizing the problem behaviours for the youth and possibly making them more likely to participate. Youth whose parents and family members discourage or forbid gambling may be less likely to gamble, as this has been shown to be a protective factor. However, if youth with restrictive parents do develop gambling problems, this can create distance and family conflict.
Identifying one’s own values and priorities―As adolescents begin to discover their values and priorities and select role models, an opportunity presents itself for the positive impact of others around them to influence their behaviours. This can include parents, family members and others who are older than the adolescents. Conversely, risk also exists when others of influence are not present or do not have a positive impact.
Negotiating and compromising within peer relationships―Negotiating and compromising within peer relationships starts in early to mid-adolescence and declines in later adolescence and young adulthood, when there is somewhat of a return to family. Adolescents who are at risk for gambling problems may be impressionable and susceptible to influence―particularly from peers who may be involved in risk-taking, impulsive, novel or experimental behaviours. This can lead the adolescent to socially driven forms of gambling (e.g., poker) as well as other risky behaviours that are commonly linked to problem gambling, including substance use.
Expanding intellectual interests―As adolescence merges into young adulthood, youth begin to expand their intellectual interests and knowledge. This in part requires a focus on school achievements. However, if youth are participating in problematic behaviours such as gambling, this can lead to poor academic performance and problems at school.
Developing the ability to delay gratification―Developing the ability to delay gratification and think about the implications of one’s behaviour (e.g., continued gambling, stealing money, etc.) are other developmental tasks that occur in adolescence. If youth experience a reinforcing “big win” early on in their gambling, this can lead to a greater need for instant gratification and affect the ability to reach this developmental milestone.
Source: Clinical examples and information on developmental tasks provided by Rob Bancroft, advanced practice clinical leader with the Child, Youth and Emerging Adult program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Adolescents are at a particularly high risk for problem gambling, typically having higher rates of problem gambling than adults. Overall, males are at higher risk than females, with males having rates of gambling that are two to three times higher (Ferris & Wynne, 2001).
According to research from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (2015), below are the prevalence rates for past-year gambling participation and problem gambling among Ontario high school students:
How does this compare to prevalence rates worldwide? According to St-Pierre and Derevensky (2016), approximately 0.9% to 8.1% of adolescents and 7.2% to 12.3% of college students worldwide met the diagnostic criteria for disordered gambling.
As gambling activities become more readily available through the Internet, the prevalence of gambling and problem gambling will likely increase.
Many factors can put someone at risk for developing gambling problems. Many adolescents with a gambling problem are also coping with mental health problems, including depression and substance use.
The following realities, behaviours and experiences increase the risks of developing a gambling problem in adolescence:
- having a parent or other family member with a gambling problem
- gambling in several different ways
- abusing or misusing alcohol or other drugs
- selling drugs
- having depression and/or anxiety
- having mental health problems and/or a high level of distress
- experiencing suicidal ideation and/or suicidal behaviour
- having experienced abuse in childhood
- facing major negative life events or traumatic experiences
- playing video games excessively
- getting into fights
- having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or impulsive behaviours
- having difficulties with friends and lacking social support
- not having a sense of belonging at school
- not being connected or close to family members
- being male
- having poor coping skills or coping by escaping or avoiding.
Many adolescents are gambling offline as well as online, despite the age restrictions. Today there are many different ways adolescents and young adults can gamble offline, including:
- playing casino games
- betting with cards
- betting with dice games
- betting on skill-based games, such as golf or pool
- betting on sports (including sports pools and sports lotteries)
- betting on races, such as horse races
- playing lottery tickets or raffle games, such as Keno or tombola
- playing slot machines
- using scratch-and-win or pull-tab tickets, such as Nevada tickets.
Although not an exhaustive list, this can also include bets or wagers made with friends (e.g., betting with friends on the outcome of a soccer game).
The ubiquity of technology and access to the Internet has created more opportunities for youth to gamble online. Sports pools are the most common form of online gambling among students in grades 7 to 12 in Ontario (Boak et al., 2015). Some youth start with free online gambling games, known as social casino games, available through social media sites. This can be risky, as it normalizes gambling for youth. These games often have better odds as well, which gives youth the impression they are more skilled at the game and/or that their odds of winning when participating in gambling games are better than they actually are.
As mentioned, adolescents who play a greater variety of games have an increased risk of problem gambling. Online gambling, Internet use and video games are also associated with higher rates of problem gambling in youth.
Online gambling can include:
- online sports betting
- playing Internet poker and other card games
- using virtual casinos and slot machines
- video-game betting (e.g., betting on outcomes, in-game betting, etc.)
The signs of problem gambling in adolescents can look similar to other problem behaviours, such as substance use. It is therefore important for professionals to ask specific questions about gambling. The signs of problem gambling in adolescents can be similar to those in adults, but there are some important differences to consider. School-related issues and possession of fake identification (ID) in order to gamble at age-restricted venues are issues specific to adolescents. Additional signs of gambling include:
- skipping school
- being preoccupied with Internet gambling sites, sports results and/or TV poker
- missing money without an adequate explanation
- borrowing or stealing money from friends and family
- selling or losing possessions
- having large, unexplained amounts of cash
- having fake ID(s), casino entry card(s) or racetrack receipt(s) among belongings
- leaving an Internet trail.
Adolescents are more independent from guardians and family members and place great importance on relationships and activities outside the home. These common features of this developmental stage when paired with worry, shame and secrecy about gambling behaviours can make recognizing the signs and symptoms of problem gambling in youth particularly difficult for families.
Problem gambling can hurt both the person who is gambling and the people around them. In fact, for each person with a gambling problem, between eight and 10 other people are directly affected in some way.
The severity levels of problem gambling and its consequences are on a continuum. When problem gambling is severe, more consequences tend to be present. However, adolescents can experience consequences of gambling behaviours even if they are not gambling problematically—for instance, getting caught participating in age-restricted gambling activities while underage. Consequences for youth and their families can include:
- financial problems
- problems with stealing or other legal/criminal issues
- secretiveness and lying
- school issues, such as attendance, academic, behavioural, social and interpersonal concerns
- mood swings or irritability
- problems related to mental and physical health
- substance use problems
- excessive time spent playing video games or using technology such as a computer or phone
- parenting difficulties and/or disagreements between parents on how to deal with the gambling problem
- arguments between family members
- physical, verbal and emotional abuse between family members
- discomfort talking about the gambling problem with other family members or friends
- loneliness and isolation.
Social attitudes toward gambling
Marketing and advertising for gambling is ubiquitous, with 61% of young people reporting that gambling advertisements have been sent directly to their email as spam and 96% having seen gambling advertisements on television (Derevensky et al., 2010). The advertisements not only depict gambling as a highly exciting and entertaining activity but also make winning look easy and frequent. These advertisements may influence youth to gamble and engage people who are already having difficulty with gambling.
The attitudes of parents, teachers and mental health professionals toward gambling can also impact the gambling behaviour of adolescents. Many parents do not think gambling is a risky activity and may introduce their children to gambling by purchasing a lottery ticket for them or involving them in games like poker. Many teachers and mental health professionals see gambling as a less risky and less serious behaviour than drug use or other addictive behaviours; therefore, they do not address it to the same extent. For example, Derevensky and colleagues (2014) surveyed Ontario public and private high school teachers and found that out of 10 adolescent high-risk behaviours, problem gambling was ranked as the least important—with only 20% of teachers indicating it to be a serious problem. These beliefs could impact not only their discussions around problem gambling but also the supports provided to students who may be at risk. The promotion and normalization of gambling, attitudes and role modelling of parents as well as the perception of gambling as less risky than other behaviours impact the way adolescents view gambling.
Barriers to treatment
Gambling is often referred to as a “hidden addiction.” In addition to it being easier to hide than a substance use problem, youth are often gaining increased independence from family and spending more time with peers, which means parents may have fewer opportunities to identify or deal with the problem. Gambling is not typically on the radar of parents, teachers and mental health professionals, so youth are often not educated or asked about their gambling.
Furthermore, few treatment options are tailored to adolescents, which may deter some youth from attending treatment.
Addressing the issues early can help reduce the harm and additional risks related to problem gambling. Unfortunately, gambling is not seen as a serious issue in the same way substance use and other social problems are. Raising awareness among parents and mental health professionals about adolescent problem gambling is an important way to help prevent it and reduce the risks.
Currently there is a paucity of prevention programs for adolescent problem gambling, and the ones that do exist focus on raising awareness and do not address
protective factors such as school belonging and family cohesion. More needs to be done to improve the awareness and perceptions of problem gambling as a serious issue that requires prevention measures.
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