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Children with skin in online games 'risk gambling addiction'


REGULATION: James Browne. Photo: Gerry Mooney

REGULATION: James Browne. Photo: Gerry Mooney

REGULATION: James Browne. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Young children are gambling online while playing computer games often unbeknown to their parents, a gambling expert has warned.

Known as "skin betting", the practise involves children gambling when buying virtual items, such as weapons or football players. The gamble is that the buyer doesn't know what they have purchased until after the transaction.

A number of computer games also let players gamble with their skins for the chance to win more valuable ones.

"There is a blurred line between gaming and gambling in Ireland at the moment," said Tony O'Reilly, a gambling addiction counsellor with Extern Problem Gambling.

"Skin betting is when you're on a computer game and you buy an item, let's say a football player. But you could end up with a great player like Lionel Messi, worth a lot in the game, or a bad player, worth nothing.

"It stimulates the same brain patterns as traditional gambling. The argument is that these type of games lead to real-life gambling additions in children.

"In some computer games, there are actual casinos within them and players can bet with real money. Parents have bought the games and their credit card is often linked to an online account.

"A parent rang us recently because his son had spent a huge amount of money on his credit card gambling during gaming. People can rack up tens of thousands of euro debt.

"It is a problem in Ireland that is not talked about yet."

Mr O'Reilly is a former gambling addict. The Carlow postman was sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 for stealing €1.75m from his employer An Post. He used the money to fuel the addiction.

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He is a now a trained counsellor, specialising in gambling. He gives talks at schools about the perils of addiction and how to seek help.

"I'm giving a virtual talk at a school next week for transition year students and their parents," he said.

"The lockdown has led to an increase in gaming and gambling. I would advise parents to be very careful with their in-app purchases for their children.

"The talks I give in schools used to be just about gambling. Now it is about gaming addictions as well, and it's very worrying that children can now gamble on these computer games.

"Gaming addiction in this country is a ticking time bomb."

Mr O'Reilly, who wrote a book about his descent into gambling addition with Declan Lynch, said he was not anti-gambling or anti-gaming.

"For the vast majority of children gambling on these games, it will not turn into a problem for them. But for a small percentage it will lead to an addiction," he said.

"Some children with gambling problems are as young as 11.

"Their parents sometimes aren't as computer savvy as them and don't know they are gambling with their credit cards until they get the bill."

The Government has announced its intention to have a gambling regulator in operation by the autumn, with the post due to be advertised this summer.

It is part of tough new laws to regulate the online sector by Minister of State at the Department of Justice James Browne, who also intends the legislation to counter children gambling online.

The regulator will also preside over a social fund for treatment of people with gambling addictions. "These new laws have been in the pipeline for years and can't come soon enough," Mr O'Reilly added.

"The gambling regulator will be very important and funding for treatment of people with gambling addictions is very important.

"We are lagging far behind the UK, who have a lot of treatment options for gambling addiction, including in children. Gambling addiction, unlike alcohol and drug dependency, can be easily hidden. It was in my case."

The UK's Gambling Commission has highlighted concerns over "skin" betting in a recent report, saying: "We're seeing examples of really young people, 11- and 12-year-olds, who are getting involved in skin betting, not realising that it's gambling."

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