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Gaming sites are a big hit with kids – but do they harm them?

Neasa MacErlean asks if regulation is needed to stop habits forming as children flock to free sites

Just as the dangers of internet porn for children and teenagers are being highlighted by campaigners, another potential problem area has been brought to the surface. According to a report from the Gambling Commission, an estimated one in ten 11-12 year-olds regularly take part in virtual – but free – internet gambling. The big question is whether this will develop into a problem in later life – or will they, instead, just enjoy themselves without suffering any harm?

The participation of children in online gambling, mainly via Facebook, is hidden in a landscape that is fast becoming overgrown. Most areas of gambling activity are on the rise despite the economic downturn. Regulatory body the Gambling Commission, which publishes its annual report on 9 July, has just released figures showing an overall 5 per cent increase in revenues, after prize money has been paid, for the gambling industry.

The arcades sector was the only one to show a decrease in the commission's review of the year to last September. Growth was registered in the betting, bingo, casino, remote (such as online) and lotteries sectors.

Gambling is also on the rise among women. Even excluding the National Lottery, most women now gamble – and the proportion rose at a rate of over 1 per cent a year during the 2000s to take it to 53 per cent in 2010, according to the British Gambling Prevalence Survey (BGPS). The author of that study, Heather Wardle, research director of the social research institute NatCen, said: “There is quite a clear pattern of an increase among women. I'd be surprised if it didn't continue.”

Meanwhile, gamblers are turning more and more to their phones and tablets. “Mobile and touchscreens are revolutionising gaming,” said Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, the world's largest provider of social gaming services.

Zynga – in partnership with the Gibraltar-based Bwin.party – opened in the UK in April, offering over 180 casino games online. William Hill launched new apps for mobiles and tablets last year – and has reported a 298 per cent increase in business this year (albeit from a relatively small base). And at Ladbrokes, mobile revenues went up 94 per cent in the first quarter.

Gambling may have various negative social consequences but it brings in about 0.5 per cent of national income, according to the accountancy firm Deloitte, and employs 108,000 people, according to the Gambling Commission. Central government often seems reluctant to clamp down on the sector – allowing, for instance, a proliferation of betting shops and slot machines to develop in many areas.

Regulation has been falling behind practice in some areas. The kind of virtual gambling in which children participate via social media sites is currently outside the remit of the regulators.

The Gambling Commission paid for the research, which included the statistics on children, for the Exploring Social Gambling report, to help it understand the risks. But many parents will believe that it should start regulating the area. One problem for the commission is that about 80 per cent of general online gambling is outside its remit as it does not regulate companies based abroad, although that is set to be rectified by the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising), Bill which is currently going through Parliament.

Another potential concern for regulators, and for members of the public who would like to examine the issue of gamblers under the age of 18, is that the BGPS, which gave detailed data on children as well as adults, has been axed in spending cuts. It has been replaced via the addition of questions to the English and Scottish Health Surveys (due out later this year) but these questions do not cover under-18s.

The Exploring Social Gambling report suggests that one in six boys, and one in 16 girls, aged 11 to 16 are taking part in “Freemium” casinos and other gambling online. This means they can gain access to the main game for free –as 97 per cent of Freemium gamers do –without using real money to pay for extras. However, Ms Wardle does not want to jump to conclusions: “There has been a lot of concern that there could be a gateway here. Equally, this could be a really safe way for children to play with risk without having to pay anything.” That view is supported by Elaine Smethurst, managing director of the Gordon Moody Association, which provides therapy for very heavy gamblers. “It's usual for teenagers to engage in risky behaviour,” she says. “Most people go through it and come out the other side.”

But both are concerned about young gamblers and provide more reasons as to why the area should be carefully monitored. Ms Wardle's research in the BGPS shows that children of regular, problem gamblers are 7.2 times more likely to become problem gamblers themselves. And she adds: “A predictor of experiencing problem gambling is starting to gamble at a young age and having an early big win.”

Gordon Moody's research shows that 74 per cent of its clients in 2012 began gambling under the age of 18, with 6 per cent starting under the age of eight. “A lot of them describe their first experience as being at the seaside with their family,” adds Ms Smethurst.

GamCare, the free advice service, says students are regular callers to its helpline. “Students can lose a lot of money in a short time without knowing it,” says Gamcare's chief executive, Dirk Hansen. “They don't even know what's happened sometimes. They just want someone to fix it.”

Ms Smethurst urges parents to be attentive. “It's really important to keep an eye out for extremes of behaviour – such as a child spending too much or isolating themselves.” Both she and Mr Hansen have seen the dire consequences of student gambling – the remortgaging of the parents' house, for instance, or students having to quit university when the gaming obsession leaves no time for studying. When students get hooked, “they begin to isolate more and more,” says Mr Hansen.

Although problem gamblers amount to about 0.9 per cent of adults, says the BGPS, only one in ten of them are getting assistance. There is help out there. GamCare is the main resource centre, and 60,000 people rang it last year. It also has an online forum for people who prefer communicating with other gamblers rather than counsellors. In November, the BigDeal site was launched by GamCare, aimed at teenagers.

Ms Smethurst also recommends Bet Filter, a web service that blocks access to gambling sites. Individuals can also “self-exclude” by asking their local casinos or betting shops to refuse entry.

More research is needed to understand whether, for instance, young people who enter free online casinos regularly are more likely to become hooked on gambling later. Some action may be needed. Being unregulated, Freemium gambling is open to people of all ages – while most traditional gambling is limited to those aged 18 or over.

However, Ms Smethurst is keen we wait until we understand the situation better before taking dramatic action. “We shouldn't over-react. For the vast majority of people, gambling is a leisure pursuit,” she says.

And, as any parent knows, the banning of activities – from staying out late to smoking – is almost guaranteed to increase interest.

Case study: "I'd throw coins at the wall just to see which side turned over"
Jimmy Connors, double wimbledon champion

“I've been a gambling man all my life,” says Jimmy Connors in his newly published autobiography, The Outsider. “As a kid I'd bet on anything: a game of pool or the football ... Hell, I'd throw quarters against the wall just to see which side turned over.”

His father and brother were also gamblers. And the inevitable happened when his brother, who owned a riverboat gaming company on the Mississippi, doubled as the tennis star's financial manager – and regularly dipped into his winnings. When the deceit was discovered, the pair barely spoke for 17 years.

Connors is candid about his own problem: “I play until I can't any more.” In Las Vegas once, he lost $60,000 in four hours and had to win the tournament he was playing in to pay the debt. He used to bet heavily on himself and one of his worst stories involves his Wimbledon driver, Ken, following suit and betting far more than he could afford on the 33-year-old Connors winning the 1986 tournament. Connors went out in round one and felt obliged to give his driver an extra large tip that year to make up.

His gambling also affected relationships at home. Wife Patti complained that when they were out with their children, he would “spend more time on the phone calling the sports lines” than he did talking to them. In the end he changed course after attending one Gamblers Anonymous meeting. He never returned to GA but limited himself to golf bets for five years.

Aged 60, he now says he remains a gambler and doesn't want to change, regarding some sports betting with friends as “a form of socialising”.

However, he adds: “Gambling doesn't dominate my life any more. I won't let it.”