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  • Paul Lavella Jr.

Gambling, Advertising, and Teens: A Risky Wager

A deeper dive into the causes and effects of the policy changes surrounding online gambling.



For those of us who still have network television and aren’t in the habit of streaming all of our media content, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a change in routine advertisers. What used to be a fair mix of promotions, sales and services occupying afternoon and evening commercial offerings has gradually shifted to a repetitive stream of ads for online gambling and sports betting. Truely, if we pay attention to the ads and notice their messaging, it’s plain to see the amount of thought and effort placed into them. Clever marketing.


These advertisements come at you from all angles. One of the first to come to mind is a very well produced - clearly high budget - ad featuring an award winning actor, touting the features, the excitement, fun from being in the game. What’s also being advertised, a bit more subtly, is the swagger, the bravado in his voice and tone as he shares how playing on this app is your best bet. Other ads are on the opposite end of the spectrum, featuring the everyday next-door neighbor claiming to have hit the jackpot while sitting at home while bored and casually playing games.


These ads are appealing to people who are looking to win big, or to just make some supplemental income; Promo’s focused on those who will be drawn in by revered celebrities as well as relatable real people, who just got lucky. Regardless of what may be appealing to a given consumer, clearly there’s many advertising dollars going to gambling, sports or otherwise, in a way we’ve never seen before.


Why the change? Why now? Well at least 2 things we know for sure: There’s lots of money to be made in gambling (in many ways), and the house always wins.


Online gambling was first introduced in the US in 2013, with Nevada leading the charge, Delaware and New Jersey shortly following. Each state has its own legislative process and since its inception, has addressed the matter of online gambling independently. Similarly to the legalization of marijuana, different states have varying considerations to the legalization status.


When weighing out the considerations, by and large, the majority of states have some form of legal gambling , however online options for gambling may be limited to one or any combination or machine games (slot machines, so to speak), table games (roulette, baccarat, and the like), or card games (poker, blackjack, etc.). Sports betting is now legal in nearly half the nation, however many of those have restrictions when considering online options. Despite the cause for caution, it’s anticipated that we’ll be seeing more states conceding to the trend for online gambling.


Why the sudden change in policy? True, a decade-long shift might not be considered sudden, however when considering the longstanding conservative approach toward gambling, there’s been a lot of movement in the past decade. A notable thought lends to the money to be made… by all.


A capitalist perspective on this shift would note that there is a demand, both from businesses as well as the general public, to change policy related to gambling. Legalizing these activities opens the door to more business, which leads to a stronger economy in terms of job creation and revenue, adding to overall GDP (gross domestic product).

Lowered perception of harm leads to earlier onset of use.

Conservative voices with warnings about the risks of gambling tend to be addressed by legislative initiatives to disperse a portion of state gambling earnings to public prevention and treatment programs. As an affiliate of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ, NJ Recovery & Wellness offers services to those seeking help from the effects of gambling and can speak to the need for these funding sources, however also recognizes that there’s something in the bigger picture that is being missed.


As we’ve seen with the marijuana legalization initiatives, and through decades of research through SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), lowered perception of harm leads to earlier onset of use. We are now likewise noticing this trend with gambling. As a mental health counselor specializing in work with teens and young adults, I’ve been seeing more and more parents with complaints of teen gambling behavior in the past 2 years than I’ve experienced since my time beginning in the behavioral health field.


Jimmy had been a life-long sports fan, played a sport a season in middle and high school, and was introduced to his first bookie by a friend in his junior year of high school. Within 4 months from placing his first bet, he came to his senses and reached out to his mother in a moment of desperation when he lost $2000 on a South Korean ping pong tournament and 2AM one morning.


Mark had experienced mixed emotional / behavioral and learning difficulties since childhood, leading his family to a decision to have him enroll at a boarding school to address his specific learning needs in an emotionally supportive environment. While there he was introduced to guys' poker nights, which often involved placing bets, either with cash, cigarettes, or other possessions. When the Coronavirus pandemic shut down the school and students returned home to resume their learning in an online format, he stayed connected with his friends, one of whom shared a family member’s online gambling account information. With increased boredom and what we've been lovingly calling pandemic anxiety, he noticed his online gambling progressed to near ‘round the clock, often missing classes while he played poker in bed.


Adam struggled with social anxiety and although personal, felt self conscious when interacting with others his age. With some prodding from his parents, he joined a few school clubs to force social interaction outside of class, hoping something would stick. As his father was a financial analyst, he decided to check out his high school’s investing club, in which he excelled. While the club advisor had received consent from his parents to set up a “dummy account” meant for learning purposes, Adam and his parents, seeing how his interest grew, as well as noticing his proclivity to it, decided to set him up a real trading account to do in tandem. Adam received some much needed social interaction and reinforcement, peers connecting with him over a shared interest and seeking to gain some of his insights. He also started to feel more connected to his father whom he’d felt rather distant to since his parents divorce. As he continued to dive deeper into his new hobby, he started learning about trading options, a more risky - volatile part of the market. This required more of his attention, often leading him to check in on market fluctuations throughout the day, during school. He quit the investing club out of embarrassment after one day having a panic attack in a rather dramatic scene when he realized, while his group was presenting a group project, that he’d lost over $30,000.


Ray was in high school when he started placing bets on pick-up games with friends. He viewed it as innocent, making the game more interesting. On occasion he would also join in on a night of blackjack with his friends. He didn’t see this as problematic, rather as something that enhanced their friendship. He recognized that his gambling took on a life of its own in college, after having rushed and joined a fraternity where, likewise, be felt more bonded and one of the guys, on a Sunday night when the room was alive with cheers and exacerbation while watching the big game. All of the cockiness and brotherly ribbing over wins and losses was part of how they connected. Over the course of his freshman year, gambling moved from friendly bets on weekends, to connecting with bookie’s, to driving to local casinos. What once was an exciting weekly tradition rapidly turned into an anxiety filled existence of compulsively checking his phone, dodging texts from friends and bookies to whom he owed money, and checking scores of games he’d had bets on… dreading Monday mornings, when he would be due to make payment on his losses. While sitting in my office, he described that he finally came to the realization that he needed help when one morning, while frantically debating if he wanted to ask his parents to help him pay back a bookie who was starting to send some pretty frightening collection messages, he tallies up his gambling activities and saw the plain truth that he’d gambled a sum of $47,000 from his sophomore year of high school to his sophomore year of college - with only ever having a part time job of delivering pizza’s for a few months.


 


In working with these young adults and families (names changed for obvious reasons), despite their presentations being very different, one common feature displayed through each of their narratives is how rapid their progression was. For each of them, as well many others not shared in this article, they came to their breaking point in just a matter of years - several of them still teenagers. While on one hand we can emphasize the recognition that the problem was identified early, on the other, there’s the absolutely alarming notion that these behaviors can became so preoccupying in such a relatively short period of time.


I’ve been seeing more and more parents with complaints of teen gambling behavior in the past 2 years than I’ve experienced since my time beginning in the behavioral health field.

It would be inappropriate to say that this is a cautionary tale for anyone who is enticed to place a bet, however there’s a need to do some deeper digging and consider how these changes in policy and legislation are affecting our population, specifically our youth.


Adolescence is the second most expansive phase of brain development (infancy through toddlerhood being the first) and is hallmarked for its emotional volatility and at times impulsive or otherwise poor decision making. Quite plainly, the part of the brain that helps to regulate emotions and impulses, the prefrontal cortex, hasn’t fully developed yet. A common consequence being, that if you put a potentially pleasurable activity in front of a developing teen brain, the youth will likely want to try it - and if it’s exciting, try it again and again. The way these advertisements are bombaring the ad space, you can hardly blame our youth for at least being curious. Because of course, there’s no easier way to make a quick buck, right?


The problem gets to be a bit more complex when we understand what these high risk / high reward activities can set up for these still developing minds. While their neural pathways are still taking shape, any behavior that we engage in helps to shape a set of neural connections. Behaviors that we repeat or are reinforced form stronger connections over time, while other connections are weakened. This is a process referred to as synaptic pruning. To get the overall gist of it, if you were ever told by a parent or grandparent that "your habits now will predict your habits later," they weren't too far off.


Our teens' brains are susceptible to the content they consume and reinforced behavior is likely to be repeated. Without fully understanding what they’re doing, teens who participate in gambling may be wiring themselves for compulsivity or addiction.


While local and national economies are undoubtedly benefiting from this growing business sector, there’s an argument to be made that there’s significant risks involved, perhaps that haven’t been adequately accounted for.


This legislative shift was recent, and awareness of public health concerns take time. My hope is that grassroots compulsive gambling and prevention organizations will invest in gathering data on this growing trend in youth gambling to then be able to lobby policy makers with these concerns that are ever-growing. Will restrictions on legalized gambling be reinstated? Likely not. However, we might see some regulation on the advertisement of this potentially risky behavior… The same way we saw it with alcohol, tobacco, and other issues concerning public health.


I offer you this thought. Just the same way tobacco advertisers knew their campaigns were targeting youth… And as fast food executives knew that their kids' meals were detrimental to the health and nutrition for those developing bodies…


The industry behind all of the gambling ads you see adnauseim during each commercial break know that they are likely being consumed by a vulnerable population. In fact, I’LL BET YOU they’re counting on it.


If you or a loved one would benefit from speaking to a clinician with specialized training and credentialing in treating problematic or compulsive gambling, you can search for specialists on the IGCCB (International Gambling Counselor Certification Board) Directory.