Image of Online Gambling and Young People: Understanding the Risks

Online Gambling and Young People: Understanding the Risks

Lorna Ponambalum is a highly-experienced designated safeguarding lead and senior leadership education professional. She supports staff to develop and implement safeguarding systems to ensure children’s safety is prioritised. During the pandemic, there was a significant rise in online gambling, affecting adults and children alike. In this article, Lorna provides knowledge and advice on the subject with signposts to available support.

Trends in online gambling

Over the last few years, there has been a significant growth in online gambling. Increasing technology-use has changed how players interact with online gambling games and with the online sector. Data from the Gambling Commission, which is the UK’s gambling regulator, indicates that online gambling is now the largest sector by Gross Gambling Yield (GGY). GGY refers to the amount retained by gambling operators after the payment of winnings.

Young people are generally more exposed to online gambling through advertising. A report conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Gamble Aware quoted TV advertising, social media, and the influence of family among factors likely to lead young people to gamble. This has prompted renewed concern about increased exposure during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The report also indicated that 96% of people aged 11-24 had seen gambling marketing messages within a month and were, therefore, more likely to bet as a result.

The Gambling Commission also published the Young People & Gambling survey in 2019 which focussed on young people’s participation in online activities to improve understanding of how 11-16-year-olds fund play. It found that although online gambling is much less popular with children than in-person gambling, there was a significant increase in online gambling between 2017 and 2019; from 1% of 11-16-year-olds gambling online in the past seven days in 2017 and 2018, to 3% in 2019.

New and sometimes unregulated forms of gambling have arisen online over the last few years. Some of these, such as skin gambling, are related to online gaming. The terms ‘online gaming’ and ‘online gambling’ are often used interchangeably. Although the terms relate to two quite different activities, there is some overlap.

What is online gambling?

Online gambling means to place a bet over the internet. With current technology, this generally involves logging into an online casino, bingo room, sports book, etc., via a laptop, computer, or mobile device, then using a credit or debit card to place the bet.

To be deemed gambling, there must be three specific elements – the stake, an element of chance, and a prize:

  • The consideration or stake is the money offered by the better placing the bet
  • The chance refers to the possibility that the bettor will win or lose their stake although this will be more down to luck than skill
  • The prize is what the bettor can win if the outcome of the bet is in their favour

Examples of online gambling can include virtual poker, casinos, and sports betting. In the UK, you need to be at least 18 to gamble legally, whether that is online or live. The only exceptions are the National Lottery, some scratch cards, and football pools. The minimum gambling age in the UK for those is 16 years old.

However, new legislation came into effect in October 2021 preventing under 18-year-olds from purchasing lottery tickets with online sales to 16 and 17-year-olds stopping in April 2021.

The new restrictions were introduced following a review of gambling legislation by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). They aim to protect children and vulnerable people and help ensure that the lottery is not a "gateway to problem gambling".

What is skin gambling?

Skins are cosmetic items that players can use to adapt their in-game avatar and weapons during online games. Many of these online games are popular with children and young people.

Some skins can, due to their scarcity, become collector items. The value of skins has led to casino-style websites where players can trade their collection of skins as online currency. Players will then sell their skins for real money on third party websites.

The Gambling Commission states that skin gambling sites must be licensed and have suitable age-verification processes to prevent children from gambling. However, many skin gambling sites are not regulated and can disappear very quickly.

What are loot boxes?

Loot boxes are in-game containers purchased with either virtual or real-money that awards players with randomised virtual items. They can use these items to improve their playing experience or for cosmetic upgrades to their character’s appearance.

Players do not know what will be in a loot box before they open it and so there is an element of chance. There is, therefore, a concern that loot boxes could encourage gambling-like behaviour particularly among children and young people.

Loot boxes are already classed as gambling in some countries or there are restrictions placed on their use.

Although loot boxes are not officially considered to be gambling in the UK, the government launched a consultation in September 2020 to call for evidence on video game loot boxes.

In a press release, the government stated:

“The findings will give the government a clearer understanding of the size of the loot box and in-game purchases market in the UK, how it operates, and the impact of current protections such as parental controls and consumer regulations. The government stands ready to take action should the outcomes of the call for evidence support taking a new approach to ensure users, and particularly young people, are better protected. Loot boxes will be considered alongside a review of the Gambling Act.”

The role of schools in addressing online gambling

The teaching of online gambling is in the physical health and mental wellbeing section of the Relationship Education and Relationship and Sex Education curriculum, which is mandatory in all primary schools and secondary schools from September 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools can delay teaching of the new curriculum until the start of the summer term 2021 if they are not ready or are unable to meet the requirements.

Primary school students should be taught about why social media, some computer games, and online gaming are age-restricted, for example.

Secondary school students should be taught about the risks related to online gambling including the accumulation of debt, how advertising and information is targeted at them, and how to be a discerning consumer of information online

Young people and gambling disorders

Around 55,000 children and young people in the UK, which is 1.7 per cent of the youth population, are experiencing gambling-related issues. This is usually around the mid-teen years when they start to take control of their finances. They may start to gamble either in a traditional way such as with slot machines or online such on an esports match or in an online casino.

The 2019 Young People & Gambling survey found that 12% of 11-16-year-olds say they have played an online gambling-style game. 47% of those who played an online gambling-style game, did so through an app.

Signs that your child may have a harmful relationship with online gambling:

  • Becoming easily agitated
  • Taking out their frustrations on their family or friends
  • Developing feelings of anxiety or shame
  • Maybe withdrawn
  • Getting frustrated or angry, especially if questioned about money or spending it
  • Lying to cover up spending
  • Not admitting that their spending is out of control
  • Seeming unusually withdrawn or silent
  • Truanting school, college, or university
  • Avoiding social situations often spending more time alone
  • Losing interest in things that they use to like doing

Although many of the above signs could indicate that a young person may have problems with gambling, they could also be signs of other issues.

Where to get help

If you suspect that a young person has developed an unhealthy relationship with gambling, it is worth trying to encourage them to get help as early as possible.

There are several free, professional services specialising in helping those who have lost control of their gambling:

  • The National Gambling Helpline (0808 8020 133) provides free support 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is completely anonymous. The counsellors can help with everything gambling-related, from debt advice to crisis support. They also offer free face-to-face counselling sessions. The Helpline is open not only to people afflicted by gambling disorder but also to people concerned about someone else’s gambling. You can also get in touch through their free live chat service.
  • The National Gambling Treatment Service – accessible through the National Gambling Helpline – provides safe, effective treatment for gambling problems through counselling, intervention, and psychotherapy.
  • You can visit Be Gamble Aware for more information and resources related to safe gambling.
  • The CNWL NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Young Persons' Problem Gambling Clinic and the Gaming Disorder Service, now treats young people between the ages of 13 and 25 who are struggling with gambling or gaming.
  • Recovery4All is a charity based in Bristol that has helped over 40,000 people with alcohol, drug, gambling, and mental health issues.