Where, how and when children and teenagers gamble

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

The most common forms of gambling are card games at home 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. There are thousands of online gambling websites, which children might access.

Also, children can gamble without money on smartphones and Facebook apps. And many video games rated as OK for children have gambling themes and content.

Smartphones and tablets let young people gamble at any time, day or night.

Why gambling seems like fun to children and teenagers

Gambling and gambling-like experiences are so widespread that children see gambling as normal. And gambling advertisements send the message that gambling is fun and exciting and that gambling is a quick and easy way to get rich.

Teenagers might think of gambling as a good social activity because online gambling activities use chat and messaging to encourage playing with friends, sharing gambling stories and getting others to place bets.

Online gambling is often designed so that players win a lot in ‘practice mode’. Teenagers might believe that this 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.

Gambling is based on chance, but some online gambling can look like video games and apps that involve skill. This might look like fun to teenagers and 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.

Preventing problem gambling

Explain how gambling works
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 like 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.

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 who gamble regularly might also send messages to their children about gambling being a way to make money or spend leisure time.

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 about 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, like lottery and bingo, work.

Limit internet use
Limiting your child’s internet use can limit 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 screen time and media choices is the best way to help your child make good decisions.

Spotting problem gambling

It can be tricky to tell when children have gambling problems because they don’t always run into the financial difficulties that adult problem gamblers experience.

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, your child being short of money, or your child borrowing or taking money from family and friends
  • changes in sleep patterns, tiredness, low energy levels, changes in mood, or irritability when away from gambling activities
  • falling marks at school
  • withdrawal from friends, social activities and events
  • positive attitudes towards gambling, or a preoccupation with video arcades, internet gambling sites, sports results or TV poker, or simulated gambling apps or games
  • a new focus on sports odds instead of sport itself
  • 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 Gambling Help Online on 1800 858 858, or call Lifeline on 131 114.

Risk factors for developing a gambling problem

There are some things that increase the risk that children or teenagers will develop a gambling problem in childhood, adolescence, or later in life.

Gambling activities and attitude
Your child might be at greater risk of developing a gambling problem if she:

  • has access to gambling at school, at friends’ houses or on the internet
  • starts gambling at a young age, or does a lot of gambling
  • has a positive attitude towards gambling – for example, she thinks that winning a big lottery jackpot is common, or that her peers will think she’s cool if she gambles.

Your child might be at greater risk of developing a gambling problem if he:

  • smokes, binge-drinks or uses other drugs
  • is involved in other risk-taking behaviour like fights, vandalism, shoplifting or truancy from school
  • has problems at school
  • has a parent with a gambling-related problem.

Your child might be at greater risk of a gambling problem if she:

  • has an excitable, impulsive and sensation-seeking personality
  • is having a hard time and experiencing distress, depression or anxiety
  • tends to try to ignore problems or distract herself from them instead of dealing with them
  • is experiencing family conflict, or has a sibling who’s taking lots of risks.

Risks associated with gambling

Low levels of gambling might seem safe for older children and teenagers, and some teenagers who are trying out new experiences will gamble. But gambling in childhood increases the risk of having a gambling problem in adulthood. About a third of adult problem gamblers who seek treatment started gambling when they were 11-17 years old.

Teenagers who gamble are at greater risk of other harmful behaviour. This includes: