How To Talk To Teenagers About Gambling

Written By Dave Briggs on September 27, 2022 - Last Updated on March 13, 2023
The NCPG's Keith Whyte gives his tips for a conversation parents must have with their children and appeals for more state funding for problem gambling prevention.

Informing teenagers about the dangers of gambling should involve the same amount of education and funding as similar high-risk behaviors.

That’s the advice from Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. He told PlayIllnois:

“It’s a national public health issue. We’ve got to look at it just like we do other risky behaviors. (Thanks to education) we’ve seen a massive drop in teen smoking, a massive drop in teen drinking. We know that these campaigns work, but it’s got to be competent, it’s got to be an effort by everybody and it’s got to be well funded.”

Yet, while gambling across the state grows, Illinois responsible gambling education falls well short when compared to other public health issues, Whyte said.

Gambling education must start early

That means it’s important for parents to talk about gambling with their teenagers. And, it’s critical to do it before teenagers have had a lot of personal exposure to gambling.

Whyte said this is especially true when it comes to student athletes and sports betting.

“There’s a ton of risk-taking among youth in general and we know that if you’re an athlete, you’re likely to take more risks,” he said.

He points to a 2020 NCAA gambling participation study of some 45,000 student athletes. Recent results showed that 90% of male student-athletes reported they began betting on sports before coming to college. Whyte calls that a “terrifying statistic” and added:

“If we’re not educating every high school athlete it’s too late because we can’t do prevention anymore.”

He said statistics show that the younger people are when they start gambling, the larger the chance of them developing a problem later in life.

“Kids who are engaging in early gambling are also much more likely to be engaged in other risky behaviors and vice versa. Kids who smoke are much more likely to gamble. Those that gamble and much more likely to smoke. So a lot of that’s correlated.”

What parents should tell their teenagers about gambling

Whyte said parents or guardians should avoid advocating gambling abstinence with their teenagers. Instead, they should focus on harm reduction.

He calls this the “5 knows.” Specifically, teenagers should know:

  1. That there is always a choice not to gamble. Not all of their peers are gambling.
  2. The legal gambling age for each gambling activity. It varies between  states and the kinds of gambling. The age to play the lottery or daily fantasy sports, for example, is often lower than the age to gamble at a casino.
  3. The health risks, especially the warning signs of gambling addiction.
  4. How to gamble responsibly, and that includes setting limits.
  5. Where to go to get help.

5 things teens should know about problem gambling.

Canada’s Responsible Gambling Council also has some good tips for talking to your kids about gambling.

The biggest is to start the conversation. When doing so, here’s some further tips:

  • Choose the right time to talk and keep the message light.
  • Actively listen to what your teenagers are telling you.
  • Keep the conversation short. Teens will tune out long-winded lectures.
  • Be relevant. Tailor the conversation to your kids’ interests (i.e. if they enjoy video games, consider talking about eSports betting).
  • Talk about the risks posed by non-casino games, like scratch tickets, sports betting, poker, online gambling, and gaming.
  • Tell them about the hidden signs of a problem, like hiding debts, skipping classes or work.
  • Lead by example. Teens learn from their parents. If you talk about responsible gambling and have a plan to protect yourself, they will, too.

Other resources can be found at McGill University’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors.

Does explaining probability of losing work?

Does it help to explain to a teenager that the house always has the edge in gambling? Will it work to explain the math behind the fact that almost all gamblers will lose over time?

Whyte said teaching about statistics, probability, house edge and the rate of return can’t hurt. “We think that’s a promising approach,” he said, while cautioning that most people need better math skills.

“There are some mathematics curriculums that help kids better understand the odds and randomness,” he said.

But first, gambling prevention education, in general, needs much more focus and funding, Whyte said.

“Paradoxically, even though (gambling) revenues are going through the roof, there’s so little money for problem gambling prevention programs that we place far too much reliance on one class, one message, one method in a way that we don’t with alcohol and tobacco and other things,” Whyte said.

Funding is 230 times lower than substance abuse prevention

Whyte said a study performed by a group the NCPG works with found that: Per capita funding for problem gambling programs in 2021 was 230 times lower than spending on substance abuse prevention.

“And I don’t think there’s a lot of people that say, ‘Oh, the drug addiction field is just massively over funded.’ So imagine having 230 times less per capita to do it… And the ironic thing is, illegal drugs don’t contribute billions of dollars to the state economy. It’s just the reverse. Gambling does, but somehow, as a society, we haven’t quite figured out how to take just a fraction of that money and put it back to these prevention programs.”

Keith Whyte, executive director National Council on Problem Gambling
Keith Whyte

Worse, as the legal gambling industry grows, the gap grows even larger, Whyte said.

“The rate of gambling prevention funding is increasing nowhere near as fast as the legalized gambling revenue. And in that gap, there is both a human cost as well as a potential big black eye for the industry. We all talked about avoiding the backlash like we’ve seen in the UK and almost every other country around the world. Yet, we’re watching the gap between revenue and in primary funding (for problem gambling prevention) widen in real time. Closing that gap, instead of widening it, would be a good place to start.”

Whyte said between 2018 and 2021, the amount of funding for problem gambling prevention grew by about $20 million. “That’s good,” he said. “But that’s, what, one day of New York online (sports betting) revenue?”

And, he said that that limited growth owes more to some states devoting a higher percentage to address problem gambling than others.

“So that growth, frankly, represents the good efforts of a few states rather than an average increase,” Whyte said. “If a state was doing a really poor job on gambling addiction before they legalized sports betting, they’re probably still going to do a really poor job after they legalized sports betting and that’s what we saw.”

Responsible gambling funding should be $1.5 billion annually, not $94 million

In 2021, some $94 million was spent in the United States on problem gambling prevention programs, Whyte said. That’s only about $1.4 billion shy of what it should be, he added.

“We’ve long recommended using 1% of legalized gambling revenue. It’s a good benchmark… Let’s say that revenue this year is going to be like $150 billion, plus or minus. That would be about $1.5 billion (for problem gambling prevention) and the total spend in 2021 was $94 million. That is a vast, vast, vast gap that is far less than one-tenth of 1% right now, so we have a ways to go.”

He said there is a, “human cost to underfunding your prevention programs. And it’s not just an ethical obligation, but it’s an economic imperative. The untreated social cost of a gambling problem costs the state a lot more in criminal justice and health care costs than it does to simply send some prevention messages, some PSAs.”

Starting numbers on problem gambling prevention

Normalization of gambling should help

Whyte said a harm reduction approach is helped by an explosion in legalized gambling.

“Because, up until now, one of the reasons why we’ve struggled in this field is that there’s this argument that, ‘Gambling is not legal in my state’ or ‘Most people don’t gamble.’ It was still stigmatized. That has now rapidly changed over the last decade. Now, most Americans gamble, a lot more American see it as normal. And that allows us to have that kind of harm reduction, informed choice conversation… much the same way we do around alcohol.”

As such, Whyte said legislation on problem gambling prevention needs to follow the lead of that for alcohol.

“With alcohol, there are restrictions on advertising on kids’ programs, for example, and within certain hours. You don’t have as much of that with gambling. There’s not a lot of national consensus yet. Which means kids are getting a lot more pro gambling messages than they are preventative or responsibility messages.”

He said gambling is now a part of American adult life. It can be fun if kept recreational.

“It is a realistic based, non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing approach. That’s where we are now. And now we just need to amplify that to make sure that we’re actually reaching kids,” Whyte said. “That we’re actually reaching all kids more than once, and reaching all kids more than once with multiple messages.”

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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in North America with an emphasis on the casino, sports betting, horse racing and poker sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Illinois and Canada.

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