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Gambling operators are cashing in on teens' addiction to online games

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Problem gambling is a significant societal concern that is set to get bigger.

Game and gambling operators are chasing the proliferation of new technologies readily accessible via your phone or tablet. This is breaking through traditional barriers to advertising, leaving the switched-on generation in the firing line.

Gambling operators may feel they have hit the jackpot as a result of the computer revolution, which is enabling gambling literally anywhere, anytime.

Gaming has made gambling even bigger business, with the market for the social casino 'games' alone – which are among the most popular - predicted to grow to be worth more than US$4.4 billion (AU $5.75b) this year.

There are more than 2500 online gambling sites, most of which operate outside Australian regulations. These sites allow Australians to gamble using an estimated 200+ different payment methods – many do not require proof of age.  

So rife is gambling already among teenagers, we can expect about one in five Australian adolescents to gamble – this is based on our recent study investigating the impact of the changing representation of gambling online.  Our online survey of more than 500 adolescents from 12 to 18 years of age also found that 60 percent of those teen gamblers do so online.

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Gambling has a growing presence on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Even children are increasingly exposed to and interact with gambling themes, brands, and games because of the difficulties in age-gating social networking sites.

Our research has found that two in five adolescents have seen advertising or branding for gambling operators on social networking sites, including content shared by other users. The content appeals to teens in particular, by enabling gaming via social networking sites in real-time, for short or long sessions, on multiple devices, while alternatively enabling solo-play for a different audience.

Gambling operators are typically providing humorous and entertaining content, which is the most common motivation for adolescents connecting with gambling operators on social media; however, it is not just harmless fun, because more than one in 10 adolescents reported that their gambling had increased because of these promotions.

For technology natives on the lookout for fast entertainment, gambling sites masquerading as games are just a click away. Gambling-themes are promoted through online gambling games, including those that link directly to gambling and are used by offshore gambling sites to circumvent advertising restrictions on social networking sites.

The games are often accessed via free apps, and social casino games have proven among the most popular, and profitable, of this genre. Social casino games look just like online gambling. They may be free to play and do not offer real money rewards, but users can pay to further their play.

These readily available games incorporate social components such as leaderboards and competitions, linking to social media accounts. Users are encouraged to share updates and invite their online connections to play, increasing the promotion of gambling-themed games on social media.

Gambling-themed games increase the user's confidence in winning at gambling and alter perceptions of skill and risk-taking. Our research has shown that most social casino gamers reported game operators encourage them to try real-money gambling. More than one in four adolescent social casino gamers gambled as a result of using social casino games.

We have analysed how this happens and found a relatively high proportion of adolescents (40%) had spent money within social casino games, meaning they at least paid for the game, which is in itself a concern. Paying users were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to have gambled for real money than non-paying users and significantly more likely to experience problem gambling symptoms.

Youth often differentiate between games and gambling through the chance to win money. When players start paying real money, this may lead them to want to potentially have real money rewards, which has been reported by adult game players. The experience of spending money may normalise this and generalise to spending money on online gambling.

Many youths are able to resist marketing efforts, but the influence is also not always recognised because it can be implicit rather than explicit and may not occur immediately.

Research is needed to investigate newly emerging forms of gambling and gaming convergence.

It is imperative that policy makers tighten regulations and catch up with the new technology and interactive gamified-gambling activities.

The Internet will continue to expose young people to gambling themes, and the full impacts of today's exposure, which are only starting to be seen, will be felt years from now.

As such, regulators, policy makers, community groups, and consumers need to recognise that social media gambling games pose a huge risk for youth, and act to protect those most vulnerable before the problem matures.

Dr Sally Gainsbury is the deputy director of the Gambling Treatment Clinic in the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre.

This is a modified version of an editorial published this week in BASIS, the Brief Addiction Science Information Source published by the Harvard Medical School's Cambridge Health Alliance.

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