Gambling is a big growth industry these days. In recent years, gambling has been legalized in every state except Utah and Hawaii. Often the deciding factor that mobilizes Republican support for this trend is the devilish choice presented by state leaders of higher taxes or legalized gaming.
But if you thought the rise of that new casino in your town was only for retired folks, think again. Our kids are gambling, too. Nowhere is gambling spreading more quickly – or more dangerously – than in the youngest demographic of our society.
Even though it is mostly illegal for kids under 18 to gamble, a study from the Youth Gambling Research and Treatment Clinic reveals that over 80 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 claim to have gambled over a year-long period. Thirty-five percent of 12- to 17-year-olds say that they gamble at least once a week. In New Jersey, 40 percent of teens take a gamble on the state lottery using ticket machines despite posted regulations that users must be 18 years old.
But this isn’t just social gambling. It is a social disease that is eating away at our nation’s future. An alarmingly high proportion of young people become addicted to gambling. Various studies since 1996 show that teens are between two to four times as likely as adults to be problem gamblers. Between 4 and 7 percent of youth between the ages of 13 and 20 are problem gamblers, according to several studies in the last decade.
The economic impact of this problem can’t be good, especially in a time when America’s younger generation is already loaded up on credit card debt and student loan debt (not to mention the economic freight train hurtling their way: baby boomer Social Security entitlements).
More importantly, youth gambling is a real-time technology issue. It is going on right now, right in your neighborhood, and if you’re not looking out, it might be going on right in your home.
Teen problem gamblers get started with their addictive habits as early as 10 years old. A Connecticut TV news station interviewed a young man named Rob who started buying lottery tickets when he was 10. Now: “I’ve got nothing, I’ve gambled in my life everything away, every penny,” he told an NBC-30 reporter. “I’ve gambled sneakers away. I’ve done it all in the world of gambling, and I’ve lost it all.”
It’s easier than ever for a 10-year-old to get started, since a Google search for “online gambling” pulls up some 25 million hits. Online gambling is illegal in the United States, but that doesn’t stop Americans from servicing offshore gaming sites from places like Costa Rica, Antigua or Gibraltar. Online gambling is a $12 billion annual industry, with half of that business coming from America.
If they’re not gambling online, America’s youth are increasingly drawn to the game of poker. Popular TV shows like “Celebrity Poker” and “World Series of Poker” have made it a high-profile game among young people. Keith Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling told CBS News last year that poker is “the most popular high-risk activity among teenagers, outpacing drinking, taking drugs and smoking.”
But teen gambling addicts are more likely than their peers to abuse drugs and alcohol. Studies by scholars at Yale and McGill Universities paint a frightening picture of teenage problem gamblers. They are often depressed, suicidal and socially inept. They drop out of school. They lie to their parents. They turn to crime, stealing to feed their gambling addiction.
Few teens with gambling problems come forward to admit it. They fail to recognize a problem, or they cover it up. Worst of all, some parents help their children to continue their gambling addiction. Instead of insisting on responsibility, parents foot the bill for their kids’ dangerous lifestyle. If they don’t fund the gambling costs directly, they continue to pay for tuition or car payments while their kids run up credit card debt on gambling, only delaying the time when they will turn to more desperate measures to maintain their habits.
Of course, teen problem gambling may not hurt us immediately. It may be a few years before the kid down the street steals my credit card for gambling dollars. It may be a while before he’s kicked out of his parents’ house and he goes to beat up the old lady next door for her purse and her prescription drugs.
But eventually, teen gambling will hurt us all. Unresolved, it will carry over into an adulthood problem that can’t be stopped except by prison bars.
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Floyd and Mary Beth Brown are both best-selling writers. They comment on issues of politics, culture and economics in weekly columns and on their blog, www.2minuteview.com.