From the thrill of a ‘win’ in unwrapping a much sought-after collectible card, to video game ‘loot boxes’, children are introduced to the world of gambling very early on
Gambling is back in the news. Last week a political micro-storm blew up about some Dáil members accepting hospitality from the Irish Bookmakers Association (IBA) at the Punchestown Races recently. I think it is okay to question the motives of the IBA and the TDs and senators who took advantage of their hospitality. Gambling is a very serious problem in society, not just for adults but for children and teenagers too.
Research from Canada, the US, the UK, Norway, and Australia shows that between 63pc and 82pc of teenagers aged 12 to 17 years, gamble each year. Between 4pc and 7pc of adolescents exhibit serious patterns of pathological gambling, and 10pc to 15pc are at risk for either developing or returning to a serious gambling problem. Children introduced to gambling by the age of 12 are four times more likely to develop a gambling problem.
Do you remember lucky dip bags in your local shop? Well the 21st century equivalent are “blind bag” toys which are marketed as collectibles in which the child buys a toy or set of cards in an opaque wrapping and is always encouraged to “collect them all” with certain toys or cards being rare or only occasionally found. “Loot boxes” in certain video games, which can be bought with real money and include skins or equipment to enhance their game avatar, frequently don’t contain anything new or appealing. However, the intermittent reinforcement of an occasional “win” is the most powerful draw for a child to keep returning to the collectible. Gambling can start young.
Unlike other addictive problem issues, like smoking and alcohol, the legislation about gambling is archaic and as a consequence there is minimal state restriction on advertising of gambling. This is about to be addressed in the Gambling (Prohibition of Advertising) Bill, 2021, which is moving through the various stages of the Dáil currently. But as of now, it is only voluntary codes that really apply to gambling advertising. Advertising is hugely influential for children.
Market research in 2020, by Ipsos MORI in the UK, has shown a clear increase in the volume of, and spend on, gambling advertising in recent years. Across all media they found a 24pc increase in advertising spend from 2015-2018.
On traditional media, outside of evening slots, gambling advertising is very prominent in the afternoon on TV and in the morning on radio. Lotteries were identified as the biggest spenders on advertising across TV, radio, cinema, direct mail, door drops and outdoor media. As a consequence 85pc of the more than 1,000 respondents in a ScotCen survey of 11- to 24-year-olds olds reported seeing ads on TV. 96pc of those 11- to 24-year-olds reported having exposure to gambling marketing in the last month across all types of gambling marketing.
The same piece of market research also looked at what it was about the advertising that particularly appealed to children. Colour in ads, engaging characters (“Foxy Bingo” for example), glamour, celebrity endorsement (especially sports stars), the appearance of fun with low risk, the featuring of “people like me” as well as big winners, all made ads more memorable for children.
Conversely, messages of risk and messages to gamble safely received mixed levels of understanding. Children felt that gambling could be enjoyable however, their understanding of risk varied, notably by age, with those under 16 commenting that they did not fully understand how odds worked, for example. Children often described risk in overly simplistic terms with some confusion about the chance of winning. Children are a very vulnerable population when it comes to gambling advertising.
It may be hard to spot if your child or teenager is developing a gambling problem as some of the signs are also signs of problems with things like drugs or alcohol. These include mitching school, decreased interest in usual activities, frequently asking for money or money or valuables going missing at home and withdrawal from family or friends. Some of the signs that may be more specific to gambling as an issue include having extra money or expensive items, having gambling apps on their phone, showing increased interest in multiple sporting events simultaneously or showing intense interest when others are talking about gambling.
None of us like to think that our children will be the ones to develop serious problems with an addictive behaviour. Similarly, none of us may like to think that we role model a special interest in gambling. Even your occasional interest in the Lotto might be enough to excite them, however. What child wouldn’t want a private aqua-park in their home?
Like all important issues that teens are likely to dabble in and experiment with, gambling needs to be talked about in an open and explanatory way. We also need the support of legislation to expose children to less gambling advertising. But if some of our legislators are naively accepting hospitality from the bookmakers’ representative body, it suggests they don’t see gambling as the huge problem that it is.