Parents would never think of putting marijuana or cocaine in their child's Christmas stocking. But those same parents think nothing about slipping a few lottery tickets in their child's Christmas stocking or holding a teen Texas hold 'em poker tournament for teens in the family room.
“They don’t associate lottery tickets or Texas Hold ’em with gambling,” said Linda Graves, problem gambling program manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services. “Parents must understand there are serious risks associated with young people and gambling.”
Graves recently participated in the 8th annual Problem Gambling Awareness Week campaign, an effort by the National Council on Problem Gambling to increase public awareness of gambling addiction in this state.
While research data is outdated, Graves believes the exponential growth in gambling opportunities in this state — from tribal casinos to Texas hold ’em poker tournaments — has increased the number of young Washington residents with gambling problems.
The last prevalence study in this state was done 12 years ago. At that time, 8.4 percent of youth were found at risk for developing a gambling problem. More recently, 2,000 Washington state high school seniors answering the 2008 Healthy Youth Survey said that they were having problems with gambling behaviors.
How ironic, Graves said, given the fact that many high school seniors are not old enough to legally gamble in card rooms or casinos.
Graves’ message is a good one. She wants parents to talk to their children about gambling risks — just as parents talk to their kids about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, smoking, speeding, drinking too much or drinking and driving.
“Our duty as parents is to make our children aware of the risks associated with gambling and not promote gambling activities,” Graves said.
Nationally, about 2 percent to 3 percent of adults are problem gamblers. If Graves is right, more than 8 percent of Washington teens are at risk of gambling addition. Why are teens more likely to have gambling problems than adults?
“It’s teen behavior,” Graves answers. “It’s an age of experimentation — pushing the envelope. They do things to the max and they have a sense of invincibility. They drive fast and they take risks because they are testing out who they are. Young people do risky things, and they don’t think gambling is risky.”
What may seem like a harmless and safe activity — like staging that poker tournament in the family room — can lead to a lifetime of problem gambling. When adults teach children to gamble at a young age, Graves said, they have little idea that someone gambling by age 12 will be four times more likely to develop a gambling addiction.
Graves offers these signs of potential problems:
• Does a child want to talk about gambling activities, or talk about gambling with his friends, or bring gambling up in the conversation frequently?
• Does a teen seem to be away from the house more and seem to be spending or asking for more money?
• Have parents noticed that things are missing such as iPods, cell phones, expensive shoes or jackets, or that their child has reported lost or stolen items?
• Or the reverse, does that child sport new shoes or jackets or electronic equipment that he or she should not have the financial resources to purchase?
• Is the teen neglecting homework, chores, and personal time commitments such as attending a sibling’s ball game or doing chores?
• Is the teen lying or agitated when he or she is not allowed to participate in activities away from your house?
“Any one of these signs by themselves may not indicate a problem,” Graves said. “Some by themselves represent somewhat normal behaviors in young people. However, if there are several of these that ring true, you may want to have a conversation with your teen to see if there are behaviors that need to be addressed.”
The first step for parents is to talk to their child about gambling as a risky behavior. The next step, if a problem exists, is to seek help. A good place to start is to call the state’s confidential gambling help line at 800-547-6133.