Problem gambling among adolescents does not get the same kind of attention that is given to drug and alcohol addiction, or even to other behavioral addictions such as Internet or social medial addiction. Nevertheless, problem gambling, the only behavioral addiction officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), affects a large number of teenagers.
The average age at which teenagers have their first gambling experience is younger than the average age of their first alcohol drink. Approximately half of all teenagers have their first alcoholic beverage by age 15, but the average age at which teenagers first try gambling is 12.
The results of the first-ever survey examining teenage problem gambling, which took place nationwide between 2005 and 2007, found that approximately 2.1 percent of teenagers and young adults between the ages of 14 and 21 engaged in problem gambling. Various research studies in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia suggest that teens may develop problem gambling at two or even three times the rate of adults.
Teenagers Have Little Trouble Accessing Gambling
Supposedly, there are restrictions in place that should prevent teenagers from accessing many popular forms of gambling. Lottery scratchers and casino gambling are officially off limits to teenagers under the age of 18. However, various surveys have found that younger teens often have no trouble entering casinos or purchasing lottery scratchers, either because IDs are not checked or because they are able to sneak past security measures.
Adolescents also gamble on card games, board games, games of skill (such as pool) and sporting events. Informal settings for such events may help underage teens access these kinds of gambling. For example, fantasy football is an incredibly popular form of gambling in the United States, and official leagues run by ESPN and other organizations restrict participation to those 18 and older. However, there are thousands of small fantasy football leagues formed by friends, coworkers or even families where this restriction is not enforced.
Gambling Is Becoming More Socially Acceptable
Gambling has long been seen as a moral failing, but recent decades have made gambling activities much more widespread and socially acceptable. Lottery scratch cards were introduced in the 1970s and have become both hugely popular and a major source of state revenues. Casinos are also appearing in increasing numbers nationwide and attracting more visitors than ever before. Fantasy leagues, March Madness brackets, Super Bowl pools and the like, while technically forms of sports betting, are such social, competitive and popular activities that they have normalized gambling in many families and workplaces.
Widespread exposure to gambling and witnessing gambling among trusted people such as family members has helped to legitimize gambling in the eyes of many teenagers. This perceived legitimacy, as well as more widespread access to various gambling activities, is leading more and more people to experiment with gambling during their teenage years.
Teenage Gambling Impacts Adult Behaviors
According to a 2011 study from the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA), problem gambling that begins in adolescence is likely to continue into early adulthood. Young adult alcohol use disorders receive much more attention than young adult gambling. However, the RIA’s research found that problem gambling is actually much more common than problem drinking among this age group.
Problem gambling, particularly among teenagers, is not well studied compared to other addictive disorders. However, research such as that from the RIA is starting to change the view that problem gambling is a comparatively rare problem.