Childhood gambling: betting with their future

06 April 2018

New figures reveal the shocking extent of gambling among children. Journalist Phil Harris asks if we need to be more vigilant.

Gambling Slots Machine

We are in great danger of sleepwalking into a future public health storm.’ These were the words of Marc Etches, chief executive of the charity GambleAware, following the release of shocking new statistics published late last year on gambling in children. The figures paint a grim picture.

Alarmingly, 0.9% of the children surveyed described gambling behaviours that classify them as ‘problem gamblers’ – multiplied by the number of children in Britain, this equates to around 25,000 children, while another 1.3% are ‘at risk’ of problem gambling (see panel, Problem gambling, on page 43).

The figures were produced by industry regulator the Gambling Commission (2017) following a detailed survey of 2881 children across England, Scotland and Wales.

The report also revealed that 12% of children – the authors calculated this to be around 370,000 – had admitted to gambling in the previous week, with the proportion rising to 15% in boys. This is more than those who have had an alcoholic drink or smoked a cigarette.

A total of 11% of children – more than a quarter of a million – had played online gambling games with a licensed operator, such as a bookmaker or online casino, and 7% had used their parents’ accounts to gamble online.

The report also found that 11% of children had taken part in so-called ‘skin betting’, a common feature of many popular games, whereby online gamers can bet using in-game items, such as weapons or outfits. Although the items are ‘virtual’, they can have a real cash value, often a very large one.

Other common forms of gambling were fruit machines, private bets, scratchcards, the National Lottery Lotto and playing cards.

Overall, the Gambling Commission research suggests that children are experiencing gambling in situations where the risks are seldom clear or explained, and this raises questions about the long-term impact for children, and the risks of addiction throughout their lives.

These are not the first figures to highlight the problem. Earlier last year, GambleAware (2017a) published its own research into childhood gambling, which had found that half of young people had lied to their parents about it, and that a fifth (20%) admitted their first gambling experiences was when they were aged between 11 and 14.

A growing concern

Most gambling in childhood is illegal, and the Gambling Act 2005 states that children must be protected from harm. Most gambling becomes legal from the age of 18, although the National Lottery and football pools are legal from 16 years, and low-stakes slot machines can be played at any age.

So why has gambling become such a problem for children?

Research shows technology is playing a big part, providing children with the chance to experiment with gambling in a way that is not always apparent to parents (Floros et al, 2013). For instance, free-to-play online casino-style games, via social media or within some computer games, do not have the same level of protections or responsible gambling messages as regulated gambling.

The Gambling Commission report (2017) highlights that it is also happening in locations that should be regulated and controlled, such as those selling National Lottery scratchcards and offering fruit machines.

Tim Miller, executive director of the Gambling Commission, says: ‘We require gambling operators to have strong protections in place to prevent children from accessing their products and are actively reviewing how some, like age verification, can continue to be strengthened.

‘However, it is clear that many children’s experiences of gambling-style activities are coming from the playground, the games console or social media rather than the bookmaker.’

Andy Burrows, associate head of child safety online at the NSPCC, adds: ‘Through Childline we hear from children with online issues, and this does include accessing unsuitable apps, such as gambling apps. This is concerning, considering it is illegal for children under 18 to gamble online. If gambling companies use cartoons and comic book images to make their services appealing to children, that is unacceptable. It is important that gambling sites enforce existing regulatory measures to stop children signing up to these sites.’

A big part of the problem is that gambling has become normalised in society, according to Professor Jeffrey Derevensky, a child psychologist and director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours, who has been researching the problem for more than two decades.

‘Gambling used to be considered a sin or a vice, but now it’s everywhere,’ he says. ‘Gambling companies sponsor sports teams and advertise lots on TV and online, where gambling-related pop-ups are very common. They’ve tried very hard to make it seem innocent and fun, calling it ‘gaming’ instead. And lottery machines and scratchcards are seen in most shops.

‘Children are very susceptible to these triggers, and now they have many more opportunities to gamble, such as using websites or their phones, whereas in the past it may have been more difficult.’

He says that boys are often susceptible to thinking they know more than adults about subjects such as sports, and believing they can use this intelligence to beat the odds.

'People often think that gambling, and problem gambling, is something that is done by middle-aged men. But the reality is that there is a higher prevalence of gambling in children and young adults [Calado et al, 2017]. We know that problem gamblers usually start young.’


Gambling Infographic


What’s normal?

Gambling is often called the ‘hidden addiction’ (Griffiths, 2002) because there are often no easily observable signs or symptoms, and shortages of money can usually be explained away. Even quite young gamblers become adept at lying to mask the truth.

Professor Derevensky adds that the problem is even more hidden in children. ‘Adults and children present differently. Gambling in adults can appear more dramatic, with large losses, career problems and arguments with wives or husbands. Children don’t have jobs to lose, or partners. And they usually gamble with small amounts because they have limited access to credit.

‘But it can lead to major problems of addiction in just the same way, and the long-term consequences can be major.’

Thankfully, professionals and parents can look out for indications that a child is developing a gambling problem. 

These include a drop in standards of schoolwork, being evasive about how time is being spent, constantly seeking money, a lack of concentration, dwindling interest in activities they used to enjoy, and losing friends (Griffiths, 2002).

Other possible signs are a marked change in overall behaviour, such as being sullen, irritable, restless, or bad-tempered, constantly being on the defensive or secretive or lying, and neglecting their appearance or personal hygiene (Griffiths, 2002).

Gambling may also lead to criminal activity, including stealing from family and friends. Children may take cash from their mother’s purse, or shoplift to raise money.

A child in the grip of gambling addiction may be unwilling to accept the reality or take responsibility for their actions. As they have not developed the same insights or maturity as adults, they may not view it as a problem, and gambling may offer them status and a way of defining achievement. For some, gambling can even be a substitute 
for parental affection.

‘Children’s lives can be changed forever,’ says Professor Derevensky. ‘They suffer academically, can turn to stealing and get criminal records, build up debts and ruin relationships permanently. I’ve come across many cases of people who haven’t spoken to their parents since they were teenagers because of gambling problems.’

Meanwhile, parents can often be unaware of the role they can play in encouraging their children to gamble. Research paints a picture of some parents buying children scratchcards and lottery tickets, placing bets for them on horse races and allowing  them to spend time and money in amusement arcades (Gambling Commission, 2017; Carran, 2016).

Parents tend to think of computer games as ‘harmless’, as their experience was with older-style games, rather than the psychologically complex and money-generating online entities they have evolved into.

Professor Derevensky warns that parents need to be vigilant about their child’s online activities, and questioning if betting is involved. ‘They could be giving money to a child, thinking it is for buying games or in-game features, but in reality it may be being used for gambling.’

Problem Gambling

‘Problem gambling’ is defined as activity meeting the standards set out in the DSM-IV-MR-J problem gambling screen (Fisher, 2000). There are nine behaviours, feelings or actions indicative of problem gambling. Someone who has exhibited four or more of them is judged a problem gambler.

  • Preoccupation – thinking about gambling
  • Tolerance – needing to gamble with more and more to feel excited  Withdrawal – feeling unhappy or fed up when trying to cut down on gambling
  • Loss of control – spending more than planned
  • Escape – gambling to avoid problems
  • Chasing – trying to win back losses
  • Lying – telling lies to family, friends or others
  • Illegal acts – such as stealing money to fund gambling
  • Risked relationships – arguing with family, friends or others, or missing school or work to gamble

Jo's Story

Jo* became addicted to fruit machines at around the age of 13. Raised in a seaside town in the South West of England, she started playing the machines because they were so abundant that she considered them to be ‘part of the wallpaper’.

She feels her parents inadvertently encouraged her gambling, as they often took her to amusement arcades for a weekend treat. She says: ‘They did not see anything wrong with going to the seaside arcade because they felt it was harmless fun and didn’t cost much.’ 

Where she lived, the local arcades were the main place for hanging out with friends, as there was little else for them to do. Her early adolescence proved difficult and she struggled to fit in. But she felt wanted at the arcades.

‘The machines became the most important thing in my life. I didn’t worry about money. I just believed I would win it back or that money would come from somewhere because it always had. I was forever chasing my losses. I would always tell myself that after a bad loss, the arcade was only “borrowing” my money and that they would have to “pay it back” next time I was in there.

‘Of course, that rarely happened, but once I was playing again, money worries and losses went out of the window. Gambling became my primary means of escape.

‘I used to spend every penny I had on the machines. It was a good job I wasn’t into clothes like the other girls at school. I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything as I lost everything I had. I used to wear the same pair of jeans for months – I don’t even think I washed them.’

Jo started playing truant at 15 to spend more time in the arcades, then turned to stealing to fund her addiction. At 16, she left home and lived from hand to mouth, stealing from friends and from her job. On two occasions she met men and went back to their houses, just so she could steal from them.

Eventually she was sacked and had to move back home. She admitted her gambling problem to her parents, who were disbelieving at first. Things began to change when she got another job and moved to a remote village, with no fruit machines for miles around.

Withdrawal made her feel short-tempered, irritable and moody. She had trouble sleeping, had stomach cramps and felt nauseous when not playing.

Jo eventually joined a local Gamblers Anonymous group and, despite leaving the group, managed to curtail her gambling. ‘I wasted four years of my adolescence,’ she says – and now she doesn’t want to waste any more of her life.

Provided by Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction, Nottingham Trent University

*Name has been changed


The role of professionals Community practitioners can play an important role in helping to turn the tide, according to Jane Rigbye, director of education at GambleAware.

‘We need more prevention alongside better recognition and treatment, and staff who work with children and families are extremely well placed to play a key role,’ she says. ‘They can be aware of signs, intervene and have conversations, and signpost families to other forms of help, such as specialist charities, support groups, GPs and CAMHS.’

Jane says that an important part of education is raising the profile of gambling so that it is discussed in the same way as sex education and warnings over alcohol and drugs.

‘At the moment, there isn’t parity in the way it is considered or talked about, but that is a strange situation considering the prevalence of gambling in childhood. Kids get warned about drinking alcohol before they try it for the first time, but this is not the case for gambling so children don’t have a precautionary approach.

‘Problems can arise when there are no conversations taking place and no other protective factors. But we’d like to encourage health visitors and school nurses to see gambling as being on a par with other risky behaviours.’

Interventions with families are important because children of gamblers are more likely to suffer harm and neglect, and also to become problem gamblers themselves. There is in fact a long list of risk factors when it comes to adolescents becoming problem gamblers, which include the death of a parental figure in childhood, low self-esteem and a heavy emphasis on money within the family (Griffiths, 2002).

Jane adds that the National Gambling Helpline is also there to support professionals in how to signpost to services, and isn’t just for people with gambling problems (see Resources, opposite).


What’s being done?

Betting firm Ladbrokes Coral maintains that the industry is doing what it can to prevent the problem. A spokesperson says: ‘Anyone involved in gambling takes the requirement to protect the young and vulnerable from harm extremely seriously. We have many processes and procedures to prevent under-18s gambling, which we believe are on the whole extremely effective.

‘The Gambling Commission research covers all forms of gambling, from betting against friends to lottery scratchcards to gaming that involves buying packages. It covers a broad church that impacts not only on the gambling industry but society as a whole. No one wants to see young people struggle with gambling, and education alongside effective prevention obligations has to be the way forward.’

But Jane Rigbye thinks that not enough is being done generally. ‘We all need to be doing much more, not just the government and industry, but anyone who has a responsibility for public health. There is a growing awareness and public health concern, but little real activity from these parties.’

Charities, however, are taking steps, particularly in developing better education. GambleAware has produced a brief intervention guide for professionals who are not expert in gambling problems, which sets out what to do and the services and support that are available, and last month it launched new resources for use by schools (GambleAware, 2017b).

Meanwhile the charity GamCare has been active in this area, following last year’s launch of a strategy to combat the problem. It established a youth outreach programme that has provided free workshops for young people and trained more than 500 professionals who work with children (GamCare, 2017).

GamCare is keen for community practitioners to take advantage of its learning and development opportunities, and welcomes enquiries from practitioners who are interested in finding out more. They also run the ‘Big Deal’ website, which is specifically aimed at children but also includes help for professionals so they can encourage and facilitate conversations (see Resources below for this and other charity support).

Ultimately, Jane believes that better education is vital for preventing harm. ‘It’s probably not realistic to expect children not to gamble. But we need to have the conversation with them.

‘It’s not about saying don’t do it. We need to recognise there is some excitement and enjoyment from gambling, and children are often drawn to risk-taking behaviour. But there are many dangers – and in the long run they simply will not win.’


Many avenues of help are available to tackle childhood gambling:

  • begambleaware.org – Run by GambleAware to provide information and support. The charity also has an extensive information hub at infohub.gambleaware.org
  • bigdeal.org.uk – Advice and support targeted at young people on gambling, plus resources and information for parents and professionals
  • gamblingcommission.gov.uk – includes guidance for parents, including how to report illegal skin-betting websites
  • gamcare.org.uk – Operates Netline, a confidential online support service, and the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, with advisers trained in dealing with children
  • internetmatters.org – Set parental controls on computers and mobile devices
  • youthgambling.com – Global research and treatment information




Carran M. (2016) Children and gambling: attitudes, behaviour, harm prevention and regulatory responses. See: https://qmro.qmul.ac.uk/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/12576/Carran_Malgorzata_PhD_Final_201015.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed 23 March).

Fisher S. (2000) Developing the DSM-IV Criteria to Identify Adolescent Problem Gambling in Non-Clinical Populations. Journal of Gambling Studies 16(2/3).

Floros GD, Siomos K, Fisoun V, Geroukalis D. (2013) Adolescent online gambling: The impact of parental practices and correlates with online activities. Journal of Gambling Studies 29: 131-50

GambleAware. (2017a) BeGambleAware Advertising Assessment: February & April 2017. GambleAware: London. Available at: https://about.gambleaware.org/media/1560/begambleaware-campaign-results-icm.pdf (Accessed 10 March 2018).

GambleAware. (2017b) Brief Intervention Guide: Addressing risk and harm related to gambling. GambleAware: London. Available at: https://about.gambleaware.org/media/1605/gambleaware-intervention-guide.pdf (Accessed 12 March 2018).

Gambling Commission. (2017) Young people and gambling 2017:  A research study among 11-16 year olds in Great Britain. Gambling Commission: London. Available at: http://live-gamblecom.cloud.contensis.com/PDF/survey-data/Young-People-and-Gambling-2017-Report.pdf (Accessed 10 March 2018)

Gamcare. (2017) Youth projects update: Protecting and supporting young people. London: Gamcare.

Griffiths M. (2002) Adolescent gambling: what should teachers and parents know? Education and Health 20(2): 31-35.

Subscription Content

Click To Return To Homepage

Only current Unite/CPHVA members or Community Practitioner subscribers can access the Community Practitioner journals archive. Please provide your name and membership/subscriber number below to verify access:

Membership number

If you are not already a member of CPHVA and wish to join please click here to JOIN TODAY

Membership of Unite gives you:

  • legal and industrial support on all workplace issues 
  • professional guidance on clinical and professional issues 
  • online information, training and support 
  • advice and support for all health professionals and health support workers
  • access to our membership communities 
  • CPHVA contribution rate is the Unite contribution rate plus £1.25 per month 

Join here https://www.unitetheunion.org/join-unite/

If you are not a member of Unite/CPHVA but would like to purchase an annual print or digital access subscription, please click here