By: Katherine Johnson Martinko
When it comes to sports gambling, most parents are alarmingly clueless. This is partly because “we all have a [stereotypical] vision of what a problem gambler is”—typically a male casino or card player, or someone who used to be a horse race player, but never a teenager. “And yet, we know that teenagers have more gambling problems.”
Dr. Jeff Derevensky raises the alarm about youth sports gambling and addiction in a video and podcast interview with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk.
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an international thought leader in gambling, adolescents and behavioral addictions. His research and expertise have informed and affected government policy change. Dr. Jeff Derevensky is chair and James McGill professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University, and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry. He’s also the director of the International Center for Youth gambling problems and high risk behaviors. Dr. Derevensky joins us today from Montreal. Thank you so much for being here.
It’s my pleasure. It’s my pleasure to share what knowledge we have with your audience.
And you have been on the front lines of studying and researching this topic for decades.
So Dr. Derevensky what concerns you most about the prevalence of sports betting and online gambling as we see it today?
Well, we know that gambling in general has changed dramatically. In the last two decades. We’ve gone as you mentioned much more towards online gambling, and now in Canada and then crossed the US as well as internationally. Sports wagering is now really taken off. In Canada, the government has said it’s no longer part of the Criminal Code. It’s left the provinces to decide whether or not they would like to engage in sports wagering. And the same thing is true in the United States, where they revise their national standards, and state after state after state is now adopting sports wagering.
We should mention that depending on where you live in Canada, the legal age to engage in gambling is either 18 or 19. Depending on the province you live in. Dr. Derevensky Is there a particular statistic that you can share on this topic that you really think should give us all pause?
Well, I think what’s really important for your audience is when we think about gambling or gambling problems, we typically view that as an adult activity. Yet we know the prevalence of the adults with gambling problems, or we now call them gambling disorders, is anywhere roughly between one and 2%. When you look at younger people, those adolescents we find anywhere between three and 4%, are having significant gambling related problems. And then if you take the 18 year old adults and look at those people, 18 to 25, they are amongst the highest prevalence of gambling problems with within the general range of adults.
So in terms of those statistics, as it pertains to adolescents and young adults, where does gambling addiction, let’s call it fall within the sort of the range of other behavioral addictions in that age group.
So gambling is one of the highest prevalence rates of potential behavioral addictions that we can have. And the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization have now not only endorsed gambling as behavioral addiction, but they now the World Health Organization now looks at gaming as a potential problem. And what we’ve seen over their last decade is emerging between gambling and gaming. The most parents allow their children to play video games online, whatever think without ever thinking that this is actually gambling.
So for parents listening or watching to this interview, who may be people that fall into that category of not really knowing what their kids are doing online, they don’t have time to pay attention, etc, etc. What is a reasonable starting point for them to look into and prevent proactively a bigger problem from arising around gambling addiction?
I think one of the important things for parents to understand is that children will, excuse me will often start gambling amongst their family members, and many parents will purchase a lottery scratch ticket for their children as a Christmas gift or as a special gift for graduation without ever thinking about that as a real problem going forward. Here. We know that the earlier people stop gambling, the early young people stop gambling, the greater the likelihood that they will have a problem. And we know that one of the big risk factors for a gambling problem is what we call an early big win. So if a young child has gotten that scratch off ticket from their parents, and they scratch, and then they win $50, well, that may not sound like a lot of money to you or I, but to a young child, that is a lot of money. And that prepared that enables the young person to keep wanting to play those types of games. During the Christmas holidays, we have an international campaign, along with the National Council on problem gambling in the US, that goes right across Canada, right across the United States, and in many countries around the world, urging parents not to purchase lottery tickets for their young children. And that campaign has been very, very successful in trying to minimize the harms associated with gambling.
When you talk about an early age, what are we talking about here?
Well, we know that young people or even adults, if you ask them, when they started gambling, they will tell you often when they were nine and 10 years of age, they don’t walk into a casino and gamble. And historically, they hadn’t gambled online, although now we’re starting to see excuse me more young people gambling online, but they do start gambling and they often gamble with their parents and parents are completely unaware that their children are gambling. I had a mom who called me one day at the Art Center and said I was putting my child’s T shirts away. And I found $500 worth of lottery scratch tickets in this draw. Do you think that’s a problem? And yes, that is a problem.
In August of 2021, it became legal to bet or gamble on single sports events in Canada. Can you tell us what has been the impact of that federal government decision?
Well, basically what’s happened is the federal government no longer included that as part of the Criminal Code. And they then allowed the provinces to decide on their own, whether or not they would like to incorporate sports wagering either online or in land base venues or casino venues. And what we’ve seen is the vast majority of provinces across this country have adopted sports wagering. When people say who’s most addicted to gambling, I often say look at the government, they’re addicted to the revenues that have been generated. The amounts of money that are being generated for government are in fact, astronomical. This is not just here in Canada, but also the United States and worldwide.
It’s hard to listen to the radio, watch TV and not hear an advertisement for exactly what you’re talking about sports betting and online gambling. What do you think has attributed to those two items becoming so socially acceptable?
Well, I think part of it is that the government has said, gambling is socially acceptable, and in many provinces, the gambling operations are owned and run by the provinces themselves. Sports wagering has been popular for decades. This is not new. What’s new is that it’s now legal to actually wager on sports in different provinces. So what we’ve noticed is that many government agencies now would like to regulate this sports wagering and in order to do that, some of them have allowed other private enterprises to come in and operate the sports wagering. And what we’ve seen is that these companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars advertising because what they want you to do is they want you to sign up for their website. And as an incentive, they will often give you free money in order to wager on sports.
Along those lines, we see lots of sports celebrities in particular, both currently, you know, in their sport and and sort of veterans of their sport. Wayne Gretzky comes to mind, Connor McDavid, excetera. What is the impact of using these types of celebrities and names to promote sports betting and online gambling?
I mean, we’re very concerned about that. We’re concerned because we know these are athletes or former athlete They to young people have looked up to, and they will sell lots of products over the internet, they will sell lots of products online. And as a result, many young people will actually want to emulate and adhere to what they’re suggesting. The Ontario government is now looking at whether or not these people should be allowed to do this. What’s interesting to me as well is you don’t see any sports celebrities, and many of them have their own gambling problems, say advocating non gambling or restraining their gambling, or in terms of trying to develop more effective what. So, college is referred to as harm minimization procedures.
So what should a parent do, you know, again, if they suspect now that their child may have some kind of problem with with this online betting and gambling?
Well, I mean, the good news on many of these sites for young people, adolescents in particular, is that you really need a credit card in order to gamble. And most young people don’t have a credit card, or adolescents typically don’t have a credit card until they get older. And they may go off to university, though what parents should be doing is making sure that their children are not being encouraged to gamble, that we’re not giving them lottery tickets, we’re not get we’re not encouraging them to use our credit cards, which many parents will do in order for children to actually gamble on sports. And I think we should also be monitoring our children watching what they’re doing. And when they’re watching a football game or a hockey game, and they get overly excited about some player. This is this may be because they have a gambling problem. So I think parents really need to monitor the amounts of money that they also have access to.
If a parent has figured out that potentially their child has a problem with online betting and gambling, What should their first step be? Who should they go to see to seek help?
Well, I think most of the provinces have a facility or multiple facilities for dealing with gambling problems. Typically, young people don’t present themselves in the same way as an adult with a gambling problem. So an adult with a gambling problem, may have a spouse or a partner, who says if you don’t go for help, then we’re our marriage or our living situation is over. Whereas young people don’t believe they have a problem. Many people will send adults to gamblers anonymous, these are self help groups. Young people tend not to like to go to those groups, because they say I have nothing in common with those older people. They talk about how they lost their job, how they lost their family, how they lost their home. I still live at home. I don’t have any girlfriends or boyfriends yet. And so I’m not like those people. And so they don’t typically do well in those self help groups for adults.
Dr. Derevensky, you referenced earlier that in the last 10 years, the number has has really skyrocketed across what we’re talking about here. What do you attribute that to specifically? And what kind of role if any, does social media play in that?
While social media plays a huge role? Just like you can turn on a radio or television without seeing a gambling AD. The same thing is true on social media sites. Children are bombarded with gambling advertising, by the various gambling operators or even our governments. And so that becomes a major problem. Gambling has become socially accepted. And in fact, the industry, the gambling industry, doesn’t even like to use the word gambling anymore. They like to say it’s gaming, because gambling still has a few negative connotations. Gaming is fun and entertainment, and that’s what they’re trying to sell.
Could you paint for us a picture of some of the short term and long term effects of aggressive advertising on young people as you’ve as you’ve outlined it, and the onset of addictive behaviors?
Yeah, I think that’s the the key factor is the onset of the addictive behavior, or potentially addictive behavior. It’s important to remember while gave the prevalence rates earlier, the vast majority of young people gamble. It says three to 4% that have a gambling problem. But you can have a gambling problem if you’re not gambling. So gambling is on a continuum going from occasional rare what we often refer to as recreational gambling, to average gambling where young people are starting to show signs of gambling related problems, to finally looking at disorder gambling. And what we know is that these advertisements are designed to get people introduced to gambling. And so if we can introduce an individual to gambling, and in some circumstances, where we have what we refer to as social casino games, where you can play these games for free, and you earn points, and sometimes even earn rewards, what we know is that the payout rates on those sites are very different. So if you’re playing a fun game of blackjack, or a fun game of sports wagering, and you’re winning these extra points, or these chips, it only stands to reason that what goes through your mind is had I been playing for real money, look at how much money I would have won. And so these advertisements are really designed to encourage people to sign on to their websites to get engaged in sports wagering, they’re not trying to create gambling problems. But ultimately, there’s going to be a percentage of the population that actually does have a gambling problem, because they first started online.
What do you say to parents who say, You know what, it’s harmless, he or she is young, they enjoy sports, it’s not going to become a problem. Like what would you say to them to, to kind of warn them and potentially have them be proactive about it not becoming a problem?
Yeah, you’re quite correct. And most parents don’t see this as a potential problem. And part of the reason for that is we all have a stereotype vision of what a problem gambler is, it’s typically male, who used to be a horse race player, but now much more likely to be casino player or card player. And nowhere in there, the the word teenager, yet we know that teenagers have more gambling problems. And they saw it doing poorly academically, they, because they become preoccupied with their gambling, and they start not only becoming preoccupied, but they start losing interest in other areas that they normally had fun doing. They often become social isolates. They only associate with other people who are gamblers, their quote, unquote, good friends no longer want to deal with them. They lie, they cheat, they steal. And all these things lead to other kinds of problems later on. With some of them, some young people getting involved in criminal activity.
Dr. Derevensky we talked about the fact that you are a leader and have been a leader in this space for decades now. Is there an anecdote or two of the potential impact of sports betting that you experienced that you have been told? That deeply impacted you?
Yeah, I mean, I have a couple. They tend to be amongst a little older groups of people. But I had a sports announcer in Montreal, who worked for radio station that all they did. 24/7 was sports. And he said, I know everything about sports, that’s my business. I It’s my business to know who’s injured, who’s successful, who’s not successful. And on one Sunday, he lost 11 out of 12 games, he lost $100,000 And he said, had a monkey been betting, throwing darts at a board, the monkey would have done better than I would have done. So that’s one example. Another example I had a young man who was a CEO of a very large corporation, very bright young man who had to travel frequently because of business. And he would not get on an airplane that didn’t have Wi Fi because he couldn’t place his wagers and also follow the scores during the the flight.
So as you look out at this landscape and where we are with everything you’ve described, social media, you know, the advertising etc, etc. Like, what does the short term and the long term look like in your view, where it concerns Youth and Sports betting?
So one of the things that we’ve argued with government, in terms of prevention programs, is to try to look at this from a mental health perspective. And if we can get government to introduce pieces of gambling, in their mental health curriculum, that would be very, very important. I had a young man tell me he was really angry with his school. He was a high school student, he said, I said, Why are you so angry? He said, You know, they told me about drugs. They taught me about unprotected sex. They told me about substance use, why didn’t anyone ever say gambling can get out of control?
Yeah, it’s it’s a very important point. So Dr. Derevensky, where do we go from here? Where should we be going from here?
While I think parents should be monitoring children’s gambling behavior, I don’t think they should be encouraging them to gamble until they’re of legal age, and not only legal age, but their level of their ability to determine the amounts of money that they will spend on gambling are, in fact, reasonable amounts of money. And I think at the same time, we need to encourage our government officials and our education people to try to institute gambling prevention programs in our schools. We did a series of studies, not only in Canada, but internationally. We asked parents to identify amongst 13 potentially problematic adolescent behaviors, which ones they were most concerned about, and the one that they were least concerned about was gambling. So we said, You know what, maybe we should ask teachers because they see a wide range of children. And so we asked teachers the same question. And teachers, the least problematic behavior, only 20% of teachers said that this could become a problem. So we then went to mental health professionals. And we asked them the same question. Once again, gambling is the least potentially problematic behavior, much more interested in drug use alcohol, drinking and driving excessive gaming online. And but the good news on all those studies, and we’ve done them here in Israel, in Europe, in the United States, is that each of those groups, parents, teachers, mental health professionals, say we’d like to learn a lot more about gambling. And so I think it’s incumbent upon parents also to recognize that this can become a problem.
Dr. Jeff Derevensky, director of the International Center for Youth gambling problems and high risk behaviors. Thank you so much for taking the time today.
Derevensky is a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours. He spoke to Castelino from Montreal, explaining that youth sports gambling is a far bigger problem than most people realize.
Digital technology has made online gambling increasingly accessible over the past two decades. And recent changes to Canadian federal legislation have accelerated adoption; sports wagering was removed from the criminal code in August 2021, and this has generated enormous revenues for provincial governments at the cost of citizens’ well-being.
Derevensky is deeply concerned about the effect on young people. When they see gambling happening on social media and in their families from a young age, usually in the form of lottery tickets, they learn that it is socially acceptable to wager money, despite the risks that it brings. The worst, he says, is when a child has an “early big win,” winning, for example, $50 from a scratch ticket they got as a Christmas gift. That is a financial windfall to a child—and it makes them want more, he says.
The vast majority of young people gamble, Derevensky says, while 3 to 4 per cent have a serious problem. Gambling is “a continuum, going from occasional [or] rare, what we often refer to as recreational gambling, to average gambling, where young people are starting to show signs of gambling related problems, to finally looking at disorder gambling.”
Often, parents don’t realize it is happening. Along with educators and health care professionals, gambling is frequently ranked as the least concerning adolescent behaviour, ranking lower than substance abuse, drinking and driving, unprotected sex, and more. And yet, Derevensky lists the devastating side effects of this behaviour:
“[They start] doing poorly academically [and] becoming preoccupied. They start losing interest in other areas that they normally had fun doing. They often become social isolates. They only associate with other people who are gamblers, their ‘good’ friends no longer want to deal with them. They lie, they cheat, they steal. And all these things lead to other kinds of problems later on. With some of them, some young people getting involved in criminal activity.”
Parents would do well to monitor their kids’ online behaviour, not to loan out their credit cards for betting, and to keep an eye on overly enthusiastic support for a particular player that a child might be betting on privately.
In his interview with Where Parents Talk, Derevenksy also discusses:
- The effect of sport celebrities endorsing online betting
- What parents should do if they suspect a problem
- How aggressive advertising is harming children
- Some anecdotes that illustrate the detrimental effects of gambling addiction