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Young people and problem gambling

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Gambling is a leisure activity that some young people occasionally enjoy doing. They may do it for fun, to win money, for excitement, or to escape or forget about problems. For others, gambling may become a problem, harmful, and worse, it can lead to gambling addiction. It's important to know that not all gambling is a problem or a disease. Gambling as an activity occurs along a continuum from harmless fun to problems or addiction.

Gambling includes activities such as:

  • betting on sports
  • scratch cards
  • lottery tickets
  • poker
  • slot machines- at the track, at the casino or online

Sometimes gambling can be found within offline and online games too, where players earn, lose, or bet with points, or to earn loot boxes. Loot boxes are prizes or rewards within the game that may lead to buying more features. 

Most forms of gambling are not legal in Alberta if you're under 18. In Canada, the average legal age for online gambling is 19. Before you play, check the ratings and restrictions at GameSense Alberta | Responsible Gambling

What is problem gambling?

Problem gambling is any gambling behaviour that is causing trouble in your life, or the lives of people close to you like parents, brothers and sisters, or friends.

Problem gambling is not just about losing money. If your gambling is no longer fun and is disrupting your life, then gambling is a problem for you. Disruptions or problems could include if you miss school or work, have more arguments than usual with family or friends, or worry about money you've lost.

Is gambling a problem for most people?

No. Most people can use gambling as a fun way to relax and have a good time, with no problems. But for some, gambling becomes a very important part of their lives and does become a problem. Gambling problems can range from minor to quite serious. It can cause significant problems like missing school or work to gamble – making it hard to pay your cell phone bill, or a credit card bill. Sometimes these problems get bigger and more serious, like causing a lot of debt, problems with friends and family, and even doing things that are illegal.

What are some things people with gambling problems have in common?

People with gambling problems:

  • gamble more often and spend more time per gambling session to add excitement or to win back losses
  • have easy access to their preferred form of gambling
  • usually bet larger amounts on all forms of gambling
  • have mistaken beliefs about or poor understanding of their odds of winning
  • are more likely to identify as male
  • are more likely to say they have had problems with family members
  • are more likely to have been in trouble with the police
  • often have a history of taking risks or impulsive behaviour
  • may have a history of mental health problems, especially anxiety, depression, or both

​Who's most likely to develop gambling problems?

There's no way of knowing who will develop a gambling problem. Problem gambling is similar to other addiction disorders. People who have other addiction issues are more likely to develop a gambling problem. They're also more at risk if they grew up in a setting where:

  • gambling was a problem
  • there's history of trauma
  • risk-taking or impulsive behaviours took place

Anyone who gambles can develop a gambling problem. People with gambling problems can be rich or poor, young or old, or identify with a specific gender or culture or not.

Many people gamble without ever having a problem. They buy a lottery or raffle ticket, go to the racetrack or an evening of bingo, and drop the odd a few dollars into a video lottery terminal (VLT). When the raffle or the game is over, they go on to other non-gambling activities. ​

Gambling problems have some of the same characteristics as substance use disorder. This includes withdrawal, craving, tolerance, and difficulty cutting down or stopping gambling. Studies that have looked at images of the brain while gambling show that the reward pathway is triggered in much the same way as with substance use disorder. This contributes to gambling problems or gambling disorder.

Research shows that the younger you are when you start gambling the more likely it is that you will develop a gambling problem.

Do some young people develop problems with gambling?

Yes. In a 2005 survey of students in grades 7 to 12 in Alberta, just over 2 out of every 100 students surveyed showed signs of problem gambling. Almost 4 out of every 100 students showed signs of being at risk for developing problems with gambling.

What are some behaviours I might have if gambling is a problem for me?

There are many. Remember though not every gambler is a problem gambler, and not everyone with a gambling problem will show all these behaviours. If you have a gambling problem, you may:

  • keep secrets or be defensive about money
  • borrow money from family members or friends
  • put all your hopes on the big win (You believe the big win, rather than changing your gambling behaviour, will solve financial or other problems.)
  • promise to cut back on gambling, but may find that you're unable to cut down or stop gambling (You may often go back the next day or a few days later to try and win your money back.)
  • have a lot of emotional highs and lows
  • miss the “thrill" and become bad-tempered, withdrawn, depressed, or restless if you can't gamble
  • love to relive wins but make light of losses when others say they're concerned (Wins and losses may also be kept a secret.)
  • gamble instead of spending time with friends and may miss special family events
  • have other mental health problems get worse such as anxiety or depression
  • begin to neglect self-care (like not taking showers regularly) and show changes to your eating or sleep

How do I know if I have a problem with gambling?

While there's no way of knowing who will develop a gambling problem, there are warning signs. Some of these signs can show up early in the problem, and some may come later. When it comes to gambling do you:

  • feel badly about the way you gamble or about what happens when you gamble
  • hear others tell you that they're worried about your gambling
  • want to quit gambling, but think you might not be able to
  • hide your gambling from friends, family, or others
  • skip school or work to gamble
  • spend more time or money on gambling than you meant to (Can you walk away once you start gambling?)
  • try to win back money you've lost
  • avoid keeping track of your wins and losses from gambling
  • tell others that you're winning money from betting when you really aren't
  • borrow or steal money for gambling

For more information and to find an addiction services office near you, please call the Addiction Helpline. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

To find more information about this topic please visit Growing up online and GameSense Alberta | Responsible Gambling.

Current as of: June 15, 2022

Author: Addiction and Mental Health, Alberta Health Services