Gambling at Younger Ages Increases Risk of Addiction

March Is Problem Gambling Awareness Month

Many of the games that are most popular among children, adolescents and young adults, such as Candy Crush, are subconsciously priming children to engage in gambling behaviors. Often, games include features that allow individuals to play a simulated roulette wheel or purchase mystery items in hopes that they will include valuable tools that can help them advance in the games. In addition, players often have to pay for additional "lives" to continue playing uninterrupted; if one does not pay to play, they must wait hours to regain "lives." While it may seem innocent, the money used is real and studies have found that the more money a player invests into a game, the more at risk they become for developing problems with gambling in the future.

Experts say that there is good reason to be concerned: children who begin gambling by age 12 are four times more likely to develop gambling addictions, and studies have shown that the rate of problem gambling among college students may be up to double the rate of the general population. According to a report from the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), the average age at which a child first gambles is 12 years old, an average age younger than those for first use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. A review by the NIH of 26 gambling prevalence studies conducted in the U.S. and Canada shows both a high level of adolescent involvement in gambling activities and an increase in participation in recent years; approximately 2.1 percent of Americans between the ages of 14 and 21 struggle with problem gambling, and another 6.5 percent are at risk.

March marks the annual Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and Debra L. Wentz, Ph.D., President and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, is taking the opportunity to remind all healthcare providers to remember the correlation among mental health, substance abuse and problem gambling, and to screen patients for problem gambling: "Problem gambling is a serious addiction that has the highest rate of suicide out of all addictions. It often co-occurs with mental health conditions and substance use, and is increasing in frequency within the juvenile and young adult populations. Studies have shown that adults and children with gambling problems often go undiagnosed, or providers may misinterpret symptoms and treat for different conditions. As the popularity and opportunities for gambling grow through online platforms, it is important for providers and family members to be able to identify the warning signs of problem gambling."

Online gambling is a new and growing concern, especially for adolescents, due to its solitary nature, lack of supervision and easy accessibility. A report by the NIH found that young adults who initiate gambling behaviors as adolescents are more likely to report substance use problems than young adult gamblers who began gambling as adults. In addition, elevated rates of alcohol use, abuse and dependence are reported in association with gambling in adolescent boys and girls as compared to their non-gambling peers. "Once properly diagnosed, gambling addictions are treatable conditions," Dr. Wentz added.

Individuals with gambling problems often alert their physicians about stress-related symptoms such as migraines, insomnia, stomach ailments and cardiac distress. They are unlikely to mention gambling, and their healthcare providers are equally unlikely to ask about gambling. As a result, patients are treated for the physical symptoms, but not the underlying disorder. Similarly, if an individual with a gambling problem sees a mental healthcare provider, he or she is most likely treated for anxiety, depression or an addiction to alcohol or another drug; the gambling problem may not be addressed. Individuals with gambling problems may also be unaware that there are evidence-based treatment options available for this condition. This underscores the importance of spreading awareness of gambling addiction and of identifying the signs of problem gambling in patients, loved ones and oneself.

According to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of N.J., a NJAMHAA member organization, the following signs may indicate that an adolescent has a problem with gambling: the student is missing classes or entire school days with no explanation; selling personal belongings; stealing and lying; withdrawing from his or her regular social groups and activities; appearing distracted, anxious, moody or depressed; possessing large amounts of cash that cannot be explained; having a great deal of unexplained debt; or having an obsession with sports scores, which may indicate that the individual has a sports gambling habit.

In adults, the following are signs of problem gambling: lying to family members and friends to hide how much one is gambling; making numerous unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling; having a persistent need to wager larger amounts of money or take bigger risks, especially after a loss; endangering or losing a job, relationship, or other opportunity due to gambling; and using income or savings to gamble while letting bills go unpaid.

NJAMHAA is a statewide trade association representing 144 organizations that serve New Jersey residents with mental illness and/or substance use disorders, and their families. The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey has a multitude of resources for providers, family members, and individuals with gambling addictions on its website,, or by phone at 800-GAMBLER.

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