It’s Time to Recognize and Better Understand Gambling Problems Among Youth
As with most types of addiction, perceptions of who’s at risk for a gambling problem are often wrong. The most recent available data indicates that 2.1 percent of U.S. youth aged 14-21 engage in problem gambling – virtually the same percentage as adults with the disorder. Two-thirds of youth reported gambling in the past year and 11 percent said they gambled more than twice per week.
Though it’s hard for teens to access casinos, online and at-home betting is another way for adolescents to gamble, making it difficult for adults to monitor or detect. Like substance use and addiction, most adults who have a problem with gambling began during their teenage years.
Research Supports the Need for Greater Vigilance
Gambling, especially among youth, is not without consequence. In addition to the loss of money, problem gambling is connected to a range of mental health problems, including depression and suicidal thinking, and the use of addictive substances. It also contributes to poor academic performance and aggression.
In studies of high school students in Connecticut, researchers found that teens who had a problem with gambling were much more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and use illegal drugs. These studies, conducted by Dr. Marc Potenza, Senior Scientist at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and his colleagues, paved the way for a greater understanding of gambling as an addictive behavior and disorder.
Indeed, science has shown us that teens are particularly susceptible to risky behaviors. Gambling is no exception. One study found that adolescents whose parents were less careful in monitoring them after the age of 14 were more likely to develop gambling problems and addiction, as compared to adolescents whose parents were more involved. Another study found that adolescents who live in states where more forms of gambling are legal are at higher risk for developing a gambling problem.
What We Can Do
Today, no major national mental health or addiction survey measures youth gambling. There is no institute within the National Institutes of Health that currently focuses on gambling as a psychiatric disorder, leaving a significant need for research funding to improve prevention and treatment. And relatively few health professionals have taken action to prevent betting or to intervene with those who are already struggling with a gambling addiction. This is despite the fact that health professionals have become increasingly alert about substance use, particularly in light of the opioid epidemic, the persistence of binge drinking, and other risky behaviors among youth.
It is important to assess adolescents for all forms of addiction risk, including gambling behavior, as substance use and gambling disorders often occur together or make one another worse, and can be signs of other unhealthy behaviors and consequences.
No matter where or how young people start gambling, getting them screening, prevention, intervention and treatment services is tremendously important, particularly before their gambling progresses to addiction. It’s time to take a step forward and better understand gambling as a serious problem affecting many young people – and one that can be prevented and treated.
Max Dorfman, MA
Max is a Science Writer at Center on Addiction