How 'loot boxes' are luring your young kids into gambling online
In the debate around children's smartphone access, Kathy Donaghy looks at concerns that so-called 'loot boxes' can lure kids into gambling
Some claim they are no different to casino-style slot machines. And while the official jury is out, concerns are growing that children are being lured into gambling through online purchases in video games.
Keeping our children safe online is every parent's responsibility. And with concerns over everything from chatrooms to cyberbullying, parents have good reason to keep a watchful eye on what their kids are up to online. But the spectre of gambling is now being raised with experts here warning that the lines between gaming and gambling are constantly being blurred.
Chief executive of Problem Gambling Ireland Barry Grant says that while gambling may be low down on the list of things parents worry about when it comes to their children and the internet, it's a real threat. He warns that the issue is one parents need to be aware of - some studies show that only 10pc of problem gamblers begin betting after the age of 21, and according to a 2015 study by UCD researchers, people with gambling addictions may begin their habit as early as nine years old.
Grant, an addiction counsellor who set up Problem Gambling Ireland two years ago, says advances in technology mean children can rack up debts on their parents' credit and debit cards on video games which he says share many of the characteristics of gambling.
Law makers in some US states are currently considering whether or not to ban what are known as 'in-game micro transactions'. A bill introduced by Washington State senator Kevin Ranker last month is asking officials and game developers to determine whether 'loot boxes' and similar video game mechanics are a form of gambling that preys on children.
Across Europe too, law makers are considering whether these loot boxes constitute a risk. Belgium's government recently launched an investigation similar to the one proposed in Washington.
These so-called 'loot boxes' began to cause controversy when they started popping up in kids' games like FIFA Ultimate Team and Star Wars Battlefront 2. Whether they are called chests, crates or card packs, they ultimately serve the same purpose: they require the player to pay real-life money in exchange for a randomised item. Some items, for example a star player, improve in-game performance, while others are merely cosmetic.
And some argue that the temptation to get something "better" is encouraging children to dip in again and again.
Father of two Darren Brooks, from Ashbourne, Co Meath, got a shock when he discovered his eldest son Dylan (15) had spent hundreds buying player packs when he was playing FIFA Ultimate Team on his PlayStation.
He says kids being kids, they will want to have a go at enhancing their chances in the game by buying player packs although you never know what players you end up with. This was exactly what Dylan had been doing in the hope of landing a star player. He eventually rang his dad when he mistakenly made a purchase of €100 on Darren's card.
Darren, who is tech-savvy and a gamer himself, says he only realised the full extent of what was going on when he totted up the cost of the player packs and realised Dylan had spent over €250 on player packs, far in excess of what the original game had cost. He says he's worried that parents might not realise that when their kids are buying these player packs they are engaging in what he calls the equivalent of "a game of poker". He's afraid that if it goes unchecked it could lead children to accept gambling as normal.
"It's teaching kids the same things as gambling. Parents may not even be aware this is happening and the child could be racking up money on their parents' credit or debit card," says Darren.
And when it comes to in-game micro-transactions, Darren says he feels there should be a warning on games because people may not even be aware that there is the potential to make purchases online. Barry Grant of Problem Gambling Ireland says these in-game transactions share many of the characteristics of gambling. And he believes that these and other types of online "social casino" games indoctrinate and inculcate children into a mind-set where they begin to enjoy the whole gambling experience.
In Britain, the chief executive of the Gambling Commission Tim Miller says changing technology is bringing new threats from products and services that may not meet a legal definition of gambling - often because there is no way to cash out within the game - but that they still carry risks to young people.
Galway-based internet safety expert Jeremy Pagden says the debate around these loot boxes is blowing up within the gaming world at the moment.
While PEGI, the Pan European Game Information rating authority, says it cannot define what constitutes gambling and that this is the responsibility of a national gambling commission, Pagden says it's up to parents to know what their children are up to when they are playing video games online.
Dr Colin O'Gara, consultant psychiatrist at St John of God Hospital in Dublin, says there is international concern about how gambling is becoming embedded within kids' video games and the acquisition element (or "getting stuff") is part of it.
"One hypothesis is you have a dopamine surge with the anticipation of a certain outcome and that's what makes a game addictive. Others suggest it's like going for a walk - it's an enjoyable activity," says Dr O'Gara.
However, he says they are seeing more and more people presenting with excessive gaming and he says there's no doubt they will be seeing more and more of them in the future.
"We have seen that for problem and severe gamblers their problems start early. They start in adolescence."
Today is Safer Internet Day across the EU and there are many events planned around Ireland. For more information and guides for parents, visit saferinternetday.ie
How to stop children's spending
We know that when it comes to children, they model themselves on our behaviour. Barry Grant, chief executive of Problem Gambling Ireland says that if you don't want them to gamble, set a good example and be conscious of your own behaviour. He says gambling should never be normalised in front of children and parents must be conscious of gambling in their own lives.
According to internet safety expert Jeremy Pagden, parents need to keep an eye on what their kids are up to when they're on the internet and playing games online. In his new guide for parents on internet safety, he says that parents must always be aware what their children are doing online.
"In this day and age it is no longer okay to abandon your child to the internet. Know the apps they are using. If you don't understand what a particular app does, you need to research it," he says.
Barry Grant says parents need to have the conversation with their children about what kinds of games they are playing.
"If they want to make a new purchase in their video game, have the conversation about what it is they're buying. It's not a good idea for them to have access to your debit and credit cards so it's important to look at your security settings," he says.