Gambling With Kids’ Health
There’s not a lot that shocks me anymore, but my friend Bert’s description of a Bar Mitzvah he recently attended really threw me for a loop.
Parents of a 13-year-old boy entertained his friends with Las Vegas-style showgirls and gambling. Instructors taught the kids how to play blackjack, craps, and roulette. “It was over the top,” Bert said.
What were these parents thinking? Apparently they didn’t know that gambling by minors, in any setting, is illegal.
During the past year, I worked on a project about this issue with the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School. It was an opportunity to learn about gambling as a potential addiction. Research suggests that gambling can engage the “pleasure center” of the brain – the same part of the brain that alcohol or other drugs affects.
People can get addicted to gambling, too. The evidence suggests that the younger people begin to gamble, the greater the risk of getting addicted to it.
Dr. Howard Shaffer, Director of the Division on Addictions, is an internationally recognized expert on addiction. (You can view his newest addiction project, which includes photographic portraits of addiction at www.expressionsofaddiction.com.)
Dr. Shaffer’s experience supports the research. “We do see a relationship between starting young and developing gambling problems,” he says. “The younger they start, the greater the risk of gambling problems.”
I first heard about kids gambling a few years ago when my nephew graduated from a high school military academy. School staff wanted to prevent partying that involved alcohol, so they sponsored an overnight party in the school’s auditorium. Parents supervised the event, which included gambling – just as the Bar Mitzvah did.
After hearing about that, I asked kids I know whether they gambled. A surprising number said yes. A survey by the National Research Council backs this up. It found that the vast majority of adolescents have gambled by the time they finish high school.
Kids are losing vast sums of money on Internet gambling sites. They bet on sporting events and play high stakes poker. As with any other risky behavior, kids will say they have it under control, or that nothing bad will happen to them. But the trend suggests that gambling among young people is a hidden epidemic.
Adults need to get familiar with the warning signs associated with kids’ gambling, and help kids understand the risks.
I’ll make my own bet: Most parents don’t know that most kids are gambling. And I wager that most kids who gamble don’t realize they’re gambling with their health.
Here are signs of gambling problems in youth offered by one organization concerned about youth gambling.
Don’t ignore these signs if you see them in a friend or a child. They might mean they are gambling or there are other problems:
• Asking for/borrowing money from family or friends.
• Gambling "stuff" (poker books, betting sheets).
• Unexplained debts or extra cash/possessions.
• Unexplained time away from home, work, or school.
• Behavior change (seems distracted, moody, sad, worried, etc.).
• Withdrawal from friends and family.
• Less involvement with usual activities.
• Unusual amount of time spent watching sports or poker on TV, and/or reading newspapers or magazines having to do with sports.
• Intense interest in gambling conversations.
• Playing gambling-type games on the Internet.
• Money or valuables are missing.
• Using gambling "lingo" in his/her conversation (e.g., flop, call, bookie, point spread, etc.).
• Selling personal belongings.
• Bragging about winning.
• Grades are dropping.
• Lying, cheating, or stealing in school.
Here’s a place to call or visit for information or help for a problem gambler: