Special report: Too young to gamble – but not for a virtual trip to the 'Facebookies'

It is illegal for under-18s to have a flutter in a betting shop. But, in the second part of our investigation into online gambling, Paul Gallagher finds that through social media, youngsters are being lured into games that can groom them for life as an adult punter

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The Independent Online

Parents are being warned that children are at risk of being sucked into online gambling as companies queue up to create a new generation of "Facebookies". Poker, slot machines and casino games are among a growing number of "free play" gambling services hosted by the social media giant, as its 31 million UK users are targeted to become the next generation of gamblers.

With the 10th annual Safer Internet Day being held on Tuesday, critics warn that children growing up in a world of unlimited gaming opportunities on smartphones and tablets are at risk from games that use virtual money in which the odds of winning are inflated so as to normalise gambling habits and convince them they can win easily.

The tactics employed by real gambling games, such as the use of cartoon characters in slots and poker services, are hooking children by blurring the lines between gaming and gambling. The fear is that in the long term this will lead to a rise in Britain's half-million gambling addicts.

The legal age for gambling is 18 in the UK, yet 13 is the minimum age for membership of Facebook. Once signed up, they can enjoy unregulated access to games from providers such as Zynga, whose faux-gambling Texas Hold 'Em Poker game draws seven million users a day. Last year it was one of Facebook's top three games.

Although Zynga, which accounted for 12 per cent of Facebook's $3.7bn (£2.4bn) revenue in 2011, no longer has exclusive treatment on the networking site, last month it lodged a preliminary application to run real-money gambling games in Nevada. A new partnership with a British company, bwin.party, was announced last October, offering online real-money gambling. Zynga is also the creator of "in-app purchase" games such as the hugely popular Farmville, in which people can buy farm cash for real money, which can then be used to buy items in the game.

Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, warns of a "looming explosion of social gambling games", with children most at risk as they are introduced to the principles of gambling.

"At first sight, games like Farmville may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar. Companies such as Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire. Social media is where gambling is going now."

Roulette Tournaments is another Facebook app that allows for free play indefinitely. Players always have the option to enter their card details to purchase "Tourney Cash", which can be used in game.

Last year Facebook launched Bingo Friendzy, its first real-money online gambling application that allows users to win jackpots of up to £50,000. It features Moshi Monsters-style cartoon characters and remains available to UK Facebook users only. Professor Griffiths said: "Anyone who says this kind of imagery isn't roping in kids is being deceptive."

Traditional gambling firms are subject to much tighter regulation on social media, but adults are constantly targeted on Facebook through sponsored gambling ads.

Kate Miller, PR director at William Hill, said the company was focused "quite heavily on social media and PR as it drives a lot of traffic through to our website and to our products". She said William Hill, which has the largest share of the UK's remote gambling market (15 per cent) and employs 13,000 people in the UK, did not believe that there was any evidence to suggest "free-gamers" were being turned into real gamblers.

A Facebook spokesperson said stringent regulations are enforced for real gambling services. She added: "Facebook enables friends and families to play games together, and it's clear that people love playing games both on and off the internet. These range from card games with the family, to video or fairground games.

"When playing a game on Facebook you are playing with your friends in a safe, secure environment. We comply with local laws, and all applications on Facebook are required to operate within the bounds of our developer guidelines. There are no age restrictions on social games on Facebook as they are played for entertainment, rather than real money prizes. This is in line with the wider web."

Last week, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published written submissions from 31 organisations before it begins pre-legislative scrutiny of the Draft Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill.

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling called for greater control of "play for free" games. It said: "When play for free is allowed and the results do not represent real scenarios, then remote gambling is being deceptively presented to entice players. The most deceptive method is to allow winning events to occur more frequently than would be the case [with real gambling]."

Under its "consumer protection"' plan, the Rank Group, which owns Mecca Bingo and Blue Square among others, said: "a new licensing regime will fail to create a level playing field and may in fact penalise those operators who do most to uphold the aims of the Gambling Act – to protect young people and the vulnerable." Paddy Power said: "It is extremely difficult to effectively police the internet, and online gambling is no exception."

The Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, which includes Action for Children and Barnardo's, says it is not aware of any instances since the online age-verification laws came into force in the UK in September 2007 where a child has beaten the system and got online to gamble.

It said: "There have been instances where a child has 'borrowed' a parent's credit or debit card and has been able to pass him or herself off as the parent, but that raises different issues. There is nothing that laws can do about that, neither is there an easily foreseeable technology fix that can solve it."

The Labour MP David Lammy, who has complained about the proliferation of betting shops and fixed-odds gambling machines in his Tottenham constituency, said he was equally concerned about the growth of the online gambling industry. He said: "There are parents across the country who are concerned, particularly about their young sons who are being pulled into gambling by adverts across the web. The consequences can be catastrophic and the Government needs to listen. Online gambling is sucking young men into gambling in isolation, often in their own bedrooms. It is a silent but very addictive high."

Philip Graf, chairman of the Gambling Commission, said last month that the regulator was concerned about "the risk of young people or other vulnerable people developing gambling characteristics", "consumers being ripped off by rigged games" and "the increasing use of social media to offer or promote commercial gambling".

Mr Graf said the commission did not know whether virtual money wins are as potentially habit-forming as actual cash wins or if the higher returns possible with virtual currency prizes exacerbate any addiction risk.

He said: "Whether social gambling provides a pathway for some into money gambling and gambling-related harm … is a particular concern in relation to young people whose personalities are still developing."

Case study

Having gone on to the internet to buy a birthday card for his mother, Declan Hind, 12, ended up costing his father £7,000 after being lured into the world of online poker. He was already a poker expert from playing the game on free smartphone apps.

Declan, of Maghull, Merseyside, borrowed his father's credit card and found a poker site via an advert, said he was over 18, and started gambling. He said: "It started off in school. My mate got into the poker games, it was free to download, we were all doing it. It was all virtual money but I got really good at it, I was making loads. I went on to one of the poker websites and put all the information in. I started making a bit, but not as much as I was losing."

Desperate to win back his losses, Declan carried on playing, digging himself deeper into a hole. He was too ashamed to admit what he had done, even when his father found out his credit limit had been exceeded and his card was blocked.

Daniel Goddard