Experts Agree U.S., Industry Could Better Handle Youth Problem Gambling

5 December 2008

According to an annual study, Internet gambling among youth in the United States has leveled off after a significant decline in 2007, but experts agree that the gambling industry and the government could be doing more to safeguard against problem gambling in adolescents.

The National Survey of Youth, conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center's Adolescent Risk Communication Institute, measures gambling behaviors and risk factors in young people aged 14-22. For the study, researchers interviewed by telephone 835 participants across the 48 contiguous states.

Results show that card playing for money on the Internet, or Internet poker, at least once a month increased only 0.9 percent in 2008 to 3.3 percent, compared to 2.4 percent in 2007.

Overall, problem-gambling symptoms increased from 6.1 percent in 2007 to 7.8 percent in 2008, a result which is of concern to Jeffrey Derevensky, co-director of the Youth Gambling Institute at McGill University in Montreal. "I think they kind of downplayed the number of kids experiencing problems," Mr. Derevensky told IGamingNews. "It's a 25 percent increase."

However, he said the sample is not a huge number, especially when dealing with male and female participants.

"Our studies, for example, that we do in high schools -- and we do them locally -- range anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000," Mr. Derevensky added. "I think what we find in our studies, and in studies around the world, is that card playing is much higher. We also find that in the 18-22 group, Internet wagering is slightly higher -- but that could be due to the UIGEA."

The numbers of kids gambling online seems to be growing, even more than the 3.3 percent quoted in the Annenberg study, he said.

And the numbers of Internet gamblers who have problems is much, much higher, but it's a very self-selective group.

However, Dan Romer, director of the institute where the annual study is conducted, does not feel the increase was significant.

"I don't think much has changed," Mr. Romer told IGN. "The overall amount of gambling is down a little bit and card playing definitely staying low. And that's what was partly fuelling the interest in online playing. Kids were playing cards among themselves and that seemed to spill over along with all the talk from TV. But that seems to have declined a lot."

Meanwhile, sports betting, on a weekly basis among the sample, increased from 5 percent to 9.7 percent. And while Mr. Romer, admittedly, is not well-versed in the ways of sports betting, he said historically what he has seen has been that as card playing goes down, sports betting goes up.

"We have some people here working on that and it might have to do with the way young males like to organize their activities," he said. "They like to do activities, especially around gambling, where they control the gambling. These are two ways they can do it and they either get really excited about one or they move to the other."

So, while the overall numbers have not changed dramatically from 2007, the group appears to have shifted from poker to sports betting.

"We can't tell that because it's just a cross-section each year," Mr. Romer said. "But we think that those who like to gamble lost interest in card playing and went back to what they were doing before, which was betting on sports. Before the card playing was big, sports betting was pretty large, and they compete with each other. So now, we're seeing the reverse."

Still, while overall gambling among youth appears to be down in the United States, kids continue to have access to online gambling sites and Mr. Romer is aware of the government's shortcomings in its efforts to prevent access.

"I think the interesting part of the story is that despite all the roadblocks the government tried to put in the way, if you really want to get on and play you can do it," he said. "Whatever the government tried to do, I think, has not worked."

Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, told IGN that the Internet gambling industry and the United States government both bear responsibility for protecting youth from problem gambling.

"It seems that there are still a lot of kids that are gambling on the Internet, which raises one point that voluntary self-regulation in the Internet gambling industry may need some work because if you look at the numbers a lot of these kids are not even 18," Mr. Whyte said.

"Obviously prohibition doesn't really seem to be incredibly effective either," he added.

Mr. Whyte feels the United States government's all-or-nothing approach to Internet gambling regulation is not proving to be successful public policy.

"We know that 'Just Say No' didn't work for the entire scope of drug problems," he said. "And 'Just Say No,' which is, in some sense, the approach represented by the UIGEA, is likely not going to work for an issue that's as big as Internet gambling, or even regarding youth Internet gambling."

Click here to view study results.

Emily Swoboda is the senior staff writer at IGamingNews. She lives in St. Louis, Mo.