The Guardian view on teenage gambling: staking on dopamine

Editorial | Opinion The worlds of late childhood and early adolescence are absorbing, often overwhelming, and at best partially accessible to the adults orbiting them. So it is shocking,...

Editorial | Opinion

The worlds of late childhood and early adolescence are absorbing, often overwhelming, and at best partially accessible to the adults orbiting them. So it is shocking, but not perhaps surprising, to discover that around 25,000 11- to 16-year-olds are problem gamblers, according to new research. Another 36,000 are at risk of developing a problem. Most children try their hand for the first time via fruit machines or the national lottery, and television bombards them with betting adverts. But a growing number are exposed via new means, such as computer games and social media. While the overall number of problem gamblers has fallen in recent years, new perils are emerging.

More than one in 10 children have tried “skins” betting – allowing them to bet using in-game items, some of which can be converted to money. In other cases, they try casino-style games accessible on Facebook or smartphone apps, enjoying a bit of the thrill of a big win, without facing the actual consequences of the more likely loss. The charity GambleAware has warned of its concerns about the normalisation of gambling for young people and called for a precautionary approach.

One issue is the convenience and intimacy of new technology, and the difficulties of regulating it. Another is that users are digital natives, while their parents may not understand – or even know about – these new means. But a third, striking question is the way in which the very nature of gambling, online worlds and the intensity of adolescent experience intersect and may reinforce each other: teenage brains, after all, are reckoned to be more easily influenced by their environments and more prone to risk-taking and impulsivity. Neither teenage cliques nor gaming are new – but peers now exert pressure from afar; and gaming need not stop when your friends go home for tea. The distinction between “always available” and “inescapable” is not obvious, and these worlds can crowd out those spaces where teenagers might once have opened up (to parents who may themselves be busy answering work emails).

Like gaming firms, social media services rely for profit on the satisfaction that breeds dissatisfaction. They need users to be summoned back repeatedly by the little dopamine hit of an unexpected win or an Instagram like: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, warned recently. A striking number of tech executives are strict in regulating their own offspring’s use, perhaps aware of research such as that suggesting children who spend more time on online social networks feel less happy in almost all aspects of their lives.

Regulation and enforcement will be part of the solution to teenage gambling – despite the difficulty in tackling complex areas such as casino-style games that do not offer actual monetary rewards and in handling companies based overseas. But the consuming, addictive nature of social media deserves attention, too. A moral panic about technology will not help; we do not need draconian bans, or the jettisoning of all the advantages of the online world. Instead, sober consideration of the downsides would help better-informed communities and families to learn how to regulate, guide and advise their children in their choices.

Source: The Guardian