Edition #1: Youth and gambling

Illustration of parody game 'Tweeny bet' on smart phone
Illustration of parody game 'Tweeny bet' on smart phone
Illustration: Steven Moore

Simulated gambling online: incubation or inoculation?

The idea that early exposure to a potential hazard can reduce a person's risk of developing a problem is not new.

In biological terms, the science is well and truly settled. Globally, vaccination programs have changed life on this planet for the better, saving millions of lives and improving others by preventing damage caused by illness.

In sociological terms, the debate is not so settled. Despite a growing body of research findings, parents, and society generally, continue to ponder whether allowing teenagers a glass of wine over dinner could lead to a lifetime of alcohol abuse or, conversely, reduce the likelihood by demonstrating responsible consumption.

Likewise, there is ongoing debate over whether sex education in schools leads to, or prevents, promiscuity.

The newest 'should we' or 'shouldn't we' for parents is whether to allow teenagers to play simulated gambling games online or via social media channels.

Simulated gambling is the fastest growing area in social media gaming, with casino-style games such as Heart of Vegas, Slotomania and Big Fish Casino accounting for three of the top 10 iPhone gaming apps. These games look and sound just like real gambling apps, but because you can't cash out, they're available to anyone over 12.

Because these games don't pay out real money, they aren't regulated in the same way as real-money gambling. They also often pay rewards at a higher rate, which makes people think they'll win more often when playing for real.

The newest 'should we' or 'shouldn't we' for parents is whether to allow teenagers to play simulated gambling games online or via social media channels.

They look, sound and feel like real gambling

The problem of teenage gambling has been well documented with numerous studies by leading academics including Dr Jeffrey Derevensky and Professor Paul Delfabbro.

These studies have shown teenagers are up to four times more likely than adults to have problems with gambling.

Three to four per cent of teenagers have problems with gambling, which translates to one in every high school class of 25 students.

Teenagers who gamble can suffer depression, may miss or drop out of school, can experience tensions in friendships and family relationships, and may even resort to criminal behaviour to bankroll their habits.

Significantly, one in five adults with gambling problems say they started gambling before they were 18.

Teenagers are up to four times more likely than adults to have problems with gambling.

The advent of simulated gambling games, which often look, sound and feel just like real gambling games, has experts and pundits alike concerned about whether these games could trigger a lifetime of gambling problems.

These concerns have been aired widely with headlines predicting an outbreak of problem gambling among teens leading to higher rates of problem gambling generally.

The question of whether simulated, or pretend, gambling games could instead be a vaccine to prevent gambling problems is relatively new.

The concept that people may adapt to a social toxin in the same way they do to a biological toxin has been explored in many studies into the theory of adaptation.

Adaptation theory suggests familiarity with a dangerous product, over time, reduces the likelihood of 'infection'.

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Are gambling games grooming kids for real betting or building their resistance?

Dr Daniel King suggests a new perspective on the issue of simulated gambling. He suggests there is evidence for both potential risks as well as benefits of early exposure to simulated gambling.

In his work, Daniel has examined how young people interact with online casino games, gambling-like video games and social casino games.

Two boys engrossed in a computer game Photo: iStock

He suggests there may be two main pathways to consider when examining the impact of exposure to gambling activities. These pathways depend on a range factors, including the individual, their social system and environment, and the types of simulated gambling undertaken.

The first pathway, the catalyst pathway, describes how early exposure to simulated gambling may increase the risk of problem gambling.

Daniel points to a plethora of addiction research showing early exposure to addictive substances like tobacco, alcohol and gambling increases lifetime risk and severity of addiction.

The second pathway, dubbed the containment pathway, also points to addiction theories which recognise that exposure to a social toxin can inoculate, or promote resilience, in some people.

The containment theory suggests that given the right circumstances, young people may become more resilient to exposure to digital forms of gambling.

Daniel's preliminary model shows a range of factors which might increase the risk of harm or protection from harm.

This model suggests that given the right circumstances and design, simulated games could be used in an educational setting to increase students' awareness of the realities of gambling.

The factors fall into five categories, including parenting style, environment and structure (of the games themselves), as well as genetic and psychological vulnerability.

Both the containment and catalyst models recognise that parents' behaviour and values affect how young people think and feel about gambling.

If parents monitor their children's exposure and access to gambling, and are conscious of their own gambling habits, it will influence how young people view gambling, even from an early age.

What's the big deal?

Watch the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation's new videos on talking to teens about gambling, and read why parents should be worried about gambling ads on YouTube.

Factors contributing to the catalyst theory include the presence of a gambling subculture, peer pressure and parental modelling, as well as early big wins leading to confidence or misplaced beliefs about the likelihood of winning.

The model describes how some games have grossly inflated payout rates, possibly leading to mistaken beliefs about the chances of winning and mimicking the 'early big win', which gamblers often identify as the moment they became hooked.

The containment theory factors include that playing some of these games may remove the mystery or appeal, leading to early boredom, greater awareness of risks and sensitivity to losses.

This model suggests that given the right circumstances and design, simulated games could be used in an educational setting to increase students' awareness of the realities of gambling.

Flowchart diagram. Environment (exposure to simulated gambling and gambling promotions via digital and social media) splits into six streams: 1. Parenting style (e.g. permissive, authoritative); 2. Genetic vulnerability (e.g. Dopaminergetic system); 3. Containment (protection), 4. Structural (Reward structure, social features, promotions); 5. Psychological vulnerability (e.eg. Impulsivity, Neuroticism), 6. Catalyst (risk). Containment further splits into three streams: 1. Social (Removes mystery, parental monitoring, education/social feedback); 2. Behavioural (Early losses, free credit reduces chasing, informative and safe play); 3. Cognitive (Awareness of risks, knowledge of hidden costs, understanding of basic principles, critical thinking). Flowing from Cognitive: Emotional (Boredon, sensitivity to losses, no urges). Catalyst further splits into three streams: 1. Social (Gambling subculture, peer pressure, parental modelling, covert activity); 2. Behavioural (Early big wins, migration to monetary forms, larger wagers); 3. Cognitive (Greater confidence of winning, dilution of currency value, misinterpret profitability, gambling as gaming). Flowing from Cognitive: Emotional (Excitement, Escape/coping, desensitisation to losses, cravings and urges). Diagram copyright Daniel King 2015.A two-pathway exposure model for simulated gambling: the catalyst and containment pathways

Daniel says that given the likelihood of exposure, researchers, clinicians and regulators alike need to be vigilant about the potential risks, and benefits, posed by social gaming among teenagers.

He hopes the framework will be used to guide research agendas on youth gambling and technology to better understand the emerging issues.

Foundation chief executive Serge Sardo says the lack of substantial and convincing evidence for either pathway poses the question for policy makers of what should be the default position.

Do we assume no harm is being done and wait for the evidence, or provide greater protections for our kids now while we gather the evidence?

Find out more about young people and gambling

The foundation website has more information about young people and gambling, including tools and tips for talking to teenagers about the issue.

You can also phone Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858 or Gambler's Help Youthline on 1800 262 376 for support and advice.

Daniel King
Daniel King

Dr Daniel King is a Research Fellow and clinical psychologist in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide.

Michelle Bryne
Michelle Bryne

Michelle Bryne thinks the world is a pretty great place and there's always wine and chocolate when it's not. Michelle is a professional communicator who thinks random capitalisation is second only to inappropriate apostrophe placement as a crime against grammar.

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