A leading medical professional has called for tighter regulation to curb online gambling addiction in Ireland after the Covid-19 pandemic sparked a surge in young people seeking support.
Professor Colin O'Gara, who is head of addiction services at St John of God Hospital, Dublin, has said children as young as 15 are betting via mobile phones.
"We see it as all the stresses that go with Covid; the isolation, the boredom, the fear about the future, financial worries, all of that in the mix. It is extremely worrying," said the professor.
Critical of the lack of regulation, he is concerned "gambling has been put on a back-burner and yet again is going to be an issue that falls down the pecking order".
Young men are struggling with this in particular, he said, suggesting there is a problem of "serious mental health issues and suicide as a result".
"The rates of suicide with gambling disorder are much higher: you are talking in some samples a 25pc suicide rate or even higher, and that alarms me very much," he said.
One of the main problems is the easy access to gambling sites, with many teens using online apps and sites on mobile phones for sports betting and online casino products "where age verification processes are not robust".
He has visited schools where children have told him about having easy access to gambling sites. "Some students, usually around the age of 15, report accessing online betting accounts and using a credit card to access the site."
While some operators in Ireland have tightened age verification in recent years by seeking documents such as a passport, driver's licence and national ID card, others continue without these checks.
As a consequence, Prof O'Gara has seen young problem gamblers "continue disordered gambling" by borrowing or stealing credit cards from family members. "In the absence of a regulator, these practices are likely to continue, hence the urgent need for a new regulatory framework in Ireland," he said.
The Extern Problem Gambling Project, formerly Problem Gambling Ireland, has seen a 55pc increase in new visitors to its website year-on-year in 2020, with a marked rise in people contacting the helpline service since Covid restrictions were put in place.
"We don't believe that gambling operators licensed to operate in Ireland provide sufficient protections to their customers," said Barry Grant, the project manager of the organisation, which has been campaigning for the enactment of the gambling control bill since 2016.
He wants to see a credit card ban, which was proposed by Fianna Fáil in its election manifesto, immediate age verification measures, an end to the 'reverse withdrawal' feature on online gambling sites and mandatory deposit limits, such as are already in place on the regulated National Lottery online platform.
He also believes source of wealth checks - such as exist in the regulated UK market - to prevent people gambling beyond their means or with stolen funds, would go a considerable way to help problem gamblers, including children.
"We regularly receive calls from parents whose teenage child has maxed out the parent's credit card, gambling online, where there has been no effort by the gambling operator to verify the age or identity of the person creating the account," he said.
Mr Grant is calling for regulation across the island of Ireland, describing online gambling as "the most accessible" of all addictive products.
Smarmore Castle, a private clinic in Co Louth, has seen a 10pc rise in queries and admissions this year. Deputy clinic manager Paddy Creedon says it is "time for change".
"The statutory environment is not helping in that gambling controls have been here since the 1950s and online betting has arrived like a runaway train, destroying the lives of many.
"We have a gambling bill waiting to be passed in the Houses of the Oireachtas since 2013 and a promise of a gambling regulator since earlier this year.
"Meanwhile we have an industry that self-regulates and continues to make supernormal profits," he said.
Former GAA star Oisín McConville, who overcame an addiction to gambling, said it is "complete madness in this day of age" that children can place bets online "within minutes".
"We have to hold bookies and gambling companies accountable," he said.
"Without proper regulation that is not going to happen. Why has this not been implemented? Why is there no hunger to implement this?"