By Raising Children Network
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Teenager using his smartphone

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Up to 70% of teenagers under 18 have gambled at least once in the past year.
  • High levels of gambling advertising make teenagers think that gambling is harmless and fun.
  • Some people who gamble say that gambling, especially on poker machines, makes them feel numb. Others like the quick thrill that comes with the hope of winning. 
Teenagers have lots of opportunities to gamble – more than you might realise. Explaining to your child how gambling works can help him understand the consequences. Encouraging other interests and hobbies can help him find healthier ways to have fun.

Gambling: what you need to know

You might think it’s too early to think about your child and gambling. But some children do start gambling very young – as young as 10 years. Most of them have gambled by the age of 15.

The most common forms of gambling are card games and instant lottery tickets. These might seem harmless. But some children do move from playing these games to more serious types of gambling in later adolescence.

The internet exposes children to gambling well before they’re 18 and legally allowed to gamble on the pokies, at the TAB or at a casino. For example, teenagers say that they come across ads for gambling in emails or online. These ads send the message that gambling is fun and exciting, that the chance of winning is high, and that gambling is an easy way to get rich.

The internet and other technologies also give children new ways and opportunities to gamble.

There are more than 3000 online gambling websites worldwide, including casinos and sites for betting on sport and racing. Teenagers can also gamble without money on phone and Facebook apps. And more than 100 video games rated as suitable for children have gambling themes and content.

Gambling in childhood increases the risk of having a gambling problem as an adult. About a third of adult problem gamblers who seek treatment started gambling when they were 11-17 years old.

Why gambling is a problem

Low levels of gambling might seem safe for older children and teenagers. But teenagers who gamble are at greater risk of other harmful behaviour. This includes:

Gambling might also be the outcome of other difficulties a child is facing. 

The belief that gambling is a way to make money or that you can keep winning can increase a child’s risk of problem gambling as a teenager or adult.

Preventing problem gambling

Explain the consequences
You can start by explaining the consequences of gambling.

Children in the upper years of primary school are generally ready to learn about gambling, including the low likelihood of winning in the long term. It can be helpful to explain the odds of winning in a way your child can easily understand.

You could compare the chances of winning to other chances. For example, ‘Your chance of winning the lottery is one in 15 million. Your chance of being hit by lightning in your lifetime is one in 300 000’.

Look out for problems
For teenagers having a hard time at home or at school, gambling can be an attractive but unhelpful way of coping with problems. For example, many teenagers start gambling as a way of coping with boredom, or to escape from stress or other problems.

By being on the lookout for social, educational or mental health problems, you might be able to head off unhealthy activities such as gambling.

At the same time, you can encourage more positive hobbies and extracurricular activities. These can be a better way for your child to handle boredom or stress. They can help her feel good about herself, have fun and let off steam.

Think about family attitudes and activities
How you approach gambling in your family can influence your child. The less your child is exposed, the less likely he is to develop a problem.

But if parents gamble regularly, children might see gambling as normal behaviour and want to copy what they see their parents doing – for example, playing poker machines, using scratchy cards, or betting on races.

Parents often use gambling language to encourage their children – for example, ‘I bet you can’t swim to the other side of the pool. If you do, I’ll buy you an ice-cream’. There’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy messages relating to gambling. It’s worth thinking about how often you use this kind of language.

If you do choose to gamble, you can help your child avoid problems by making sure she knows how gambling activities, such as lottery and bingo, work.

Limit internet use
Limiting your child’s internet use can cut down your child’s access to online gambling websites. You can also keep your networked computers in the living room or family areas of your house, rather than in bedrooms, and have a family rule about not having phones and tablets in bedrooms at night.

You might consider blocking gambling sites on your digital devices.

It can still be hard to monitor your child’s online activity. Having regular, relaxed and respectful conversations about online behaviour is the best way to help your child make good decisions.

Is betting on the Melbourne Cup likely to create a problem for your child? Probably not, although it’s important for you to supervise even these infrequent gambling activities. Supervised gambling games can sometimes be a good way to teach young people about mathematics and probabilities.

Spotting problem gambling

It can be tricky to tell when a child has a gambling problem. For adults, problem gambling is often first spotted when the person runs into financial difficulties. But the negative consequences of problem gambling for teenagers can be less severe and more difficult to spot in the early stages.

Some warning signs that your child might have a problem with gambling can include the following:

  • sudden changes in the amount of money your child has, or your child being short of money
  • changes in sleep patterns, tiredness, low energy levels or irritability when away from gambling activities
  • falling marks at school
  • withdrawal from friends, social activities and events
  • positive attitudes to gambling, or preoccupation with video arcades, internet gambling sites, sports results or TV poker
  • secrecy about gambling, or denial that there’s a problem.

If there’s a problem, your child might also try to tell you that gambling is better than some of the other things he could be doing – for example, ‘At least I’m not taking drugs, Mum’.

If you want to discuss your child’s gambling, you can get advice from a psychologist, your GP or local problem gambling services. You can also call a counselling, information and referral helpline on 1800 858 858, or call Lifeline on 131 114.

Some gambling traps for young people

It’s easy for children and teenagers to get the wrong idea about gambling.

For example, online gambling is often designed so that players are highly successful in the ‘practice mode’. This draws in players and builds the belief that gambling can make money.

These early wins make people more likely to come back for more. Teenagers might believe that their winning streak will keep going when they play with real money. Most problem gamblers had what they thought was a significant ‘win’ early in their gambling history.

Also, most types of gambling are based on chance. But the crossover between gambling and gaming technologies that involve skill – for example, video games and smartphone apps – might lead some young players to think gambling also involves skill. This could give them unrealistic or false beliefs about gambling and the odds of winning.

Children might think that gambling is a socially positive activity because gambling and gambling-like experiences are so widespread. And teenagers might think of gambling as a good social activity because online gambling activities use online chat and messaging to encourage playing with friends, sharing gambling stories and getting others to place bets.

  • Last updated or reviewed 22-06-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was written in collaboration with Daniel King, University Research Fellow, School of Psychology, University of Adelaide.