Gambling's allure draws more kids into busted future

April 28, 2006|By LOU AYMARD

As though there aren't enough assaults on the psychological welfare of American children, a new one has surfaced: gambling. The stakes are high.

Youth gambling is a serious social problem that portends a calamitous future for some youngsters. Gambling regularly during childhood or adolescence may lead to an addictive disorder, problems with interpersonal boundaries or ruined educational, social and emotional development.

Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions and other respected universities deem this matter a significant enough threat to children to address it in research. Although estimates of the prevalence of gambling among 12- to 18-year-olds vary from study to study, a converging body of clinical evidence indicates that 70 percent to 80 percent of adolescents have gambled within the past year. Further, the Harvard study reports problem gambling is significantly more prevalent in that age group than in the adult population.

The roots of this problem often begin innocently within the family.

Some compulsive gamblers in recovery report that they began gambling as young as 5 years old after seeing family members bet on sporting matches and watching family poker games. Add to that early start the accessibility of video terminals, online gambling, cell phones, unsupervised teen parties and text messaging, and one gains a sobering perspective on a social toxin that is enveloping American children.

The incidence of youth gambling is likely to worsen because ubiquitous access to the Internet makes gambling easy for kids. The number of virtual gambling sites has tripled in the last five years.

Web-savvy children know how to access these sites, post false identities and pursue their addictions in a cloak of anonymity. If Johnny or Jane is "safe at home" online, looking at a computer monitor that's displaying lists of statistics or a hand of cards, parents aren't likely to infer that the child has a problem.

Neuropsychological research about brain behavior correlations provides an enlightening perspective on how vulnerable youths are to the thrills of gambling. Structures of the human brain are immature at birth. It takes about two decades for the brain to reach maturity. Healthy adults have a well-developed prefrontal cortex that facilitates thoughtful planning and inhibits risky behaviors. Childhood behavior is often mediated by midbrain structures that are emotionally based, thus leading to impulsive, thrill-seeking behaviors.

Evidence of a child's gambling problem may be in plain sight. Few parents will question a deck of cards, a lottery ticket, a pair of dice or a sheet of football scores lying on a desk in a teen's room. Addiction counselors who treat compulsive gamblers agree that parents should be vigilant about what children are doing and with whom they are associating. Now more than ever, the best thing parents can spend on children is time.

According to research, the young problem gambler may have a constant need for money or display unexplained wealth.

Additional warning signs are an obsession with the outcomes of sporting events, interest in sports teams for which there is no ostensible reason for allegiance, calling 900 numbers for sport scores or point spreads, and inappropriate reactions to a sporting match's outcome. Changes in behavior, such as mood swings, withdrawal from family and friends, a sudden, precipitous decline in grades and late-night phone calls, are classic warning signs of emotional distress.

If parents think their child may have a gambling problem, their first course of action should be to seek counseling with a specialist. Questioning a young person about suspected gambling is certain to elicit a volley of excuses, dismissals and rationalizations. Vehement denial is a universal reaction when anyone with an addiction is confronted about problem behaviors.

Parents also should also be cognizant of the subtle, enticing ways that gambling is idealized on television, in video games, through music and by popular culture. They can become an important part of the solution to this problem by educating themselves, raising the consciousness of others, speaking frankly with kids about the risks and inviting experts to address community groups and parent-teacher organizations on this topic.

Gambling takes a place among substance abuse, teen pregnancy, self-mutilation, alcoholism, illiteracy and a host of other pernicious dangers that threaten the physical and psychological health of children. American society needs to address this growing social menace.

Lou Aymard is a retired child psychologist and director of Family Outreach Network: The Parenting Center at Anne Arundel Community College. His e-mail address is llaymard@aacc.edu.

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