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Emerging gambling opportunities can spell trouble for teens

Although state statutes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey prohibit gambling for anyone under 18 years of age, the global rise of online gambling has included the teen demographic. The Press spoke with local experts from Pennsylvania and New Jersey who shared their insights on warning signs, risks, remedies, and prevention of compulsive teen gambling.

Daily fantasy sports (DFS) particularly appealing

The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey (CCGNJ) reports that more than 59 million North Americans participated in fantasy sports in 2017. However, fantasy sports participation includes not only managing an imaginary team over the course of a season, but also betting on single-day “challenges,” dramatically reducing the amount of skill involved while simultaneously increasing the thrill factor-the very thing to which compulsive gamblers are drawn.

When Gov. Tom Wolf signed H.B. 271 in October 2017, legalizing fantasy sports gambling in Pennsylvania, the statute set a minimum age of 18. However, despite being officially barred from participating, teens are not immune to the allure of daily fantasy “challenges.”

Daniel Trolaro, former assistant executive director of CCGNJ and current vice president of prevention at EPIC Risk Management, points to DFS as particularly attractive to young people, especially male athletes. In a paper published while he was at CCGNJ, Trolaro reported, “We have seen a 17-year-old student in a North Jersey high school picking his lineup on his smart phone while in biology class for a chance at $1,000 head-to-head against another person online. [… I]t is not about the money. Rather it is about the action, preoccupation, and isolation that the fantasy sports can provide.”

In a recent interview, Trolaro gave the Press his thoughts on gambling, from the perspective of a gambling addict with 12 years of recovery under his belt, as well as a professional gambling harm-prevention consultant. Trolaro’s current work involves helping NCAA schools become aware of the risks of gambling addiction among their athletes, who may have personality traits – like a competitive drive and a fear of failure – that predispose them to problem gambling.

DFS, particularly as compared with traditional season-long fantasy sports, “speeds up the process” of psychological feedback, “rapidly reinforcing” the enjoyable sensation of winning. He describes the growing phenomenon of “micro-betting:”gambling on small, within-game outcomes, such as, “Are the Giants going to score a touchdown on this next drive?” Beyond thinking about whether a particular form of gambling is legal, Trolaro says, it’s important to ask, “What does it do behaviorally?” Micro-betting is particularly challenging from a risky behavior reinforcement standpoint.

What’s the harm?

CCGNJ Prevention and Treatment Administrator Luis Del Orbe hosted a lively online discussion on Jan. 28 to inform parents and community members about potential harms from teen gambling. Del Orbe described the goal of his presentation as “support[ing] our youth in becoming responsible adults,” quoting Frederick Douglass’ maxim that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Although teen gamblers are breaking the law, Del Orbe asserted that that’s not the damaging part. He explained that teens are still actively developing, and all forms of “nutrition, whether it’s physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, is going to aid you in your development.” He emphasized the goal of modifying behaviors in young people, teaching them to delay gambling until they are mature enough to take part, with an awareness of its risks and an ability to recognize the danger signs of problem gambling.

“Gambling is a risky behavior. Exposing children to risky behavior too soon can be detrimental to their development,” Del Orbe explained, noting that there are “hidden traps associated with gambling activities. Sometimes our children are not going to be able to navigate through these traps.”

“[CCGNJ] is neither for, nor against, gambling,” he clarified. “Like most people, we see gambling as a form of entertainment, but there’s a lot of psychology in it, and it’s a business. The people that are in this business, they’re not only competing for your money, but they’re competing for your time, and they’ll do whatever it takes to lure you into a business.” It’s important, Del Orbe said, for young people to steer clear of gambling until they’re mature enough to recognize the risks.

Warning signs

Because teen gambling is illegal, it’s difficult to find reliable national data documenting its incidence. The Pa. Youth Survey (PAYS) is a biennial poll of roughly 250,000 students in sixth, eighth, 10th, and 12th grades sponsored by the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Pa. Dept. of Drug and Alcohol Programs, and the Pa. Dept. of Education. The survey asks a wide range of questions about risky behaviors, including gambling. In 2015, the surveyors added two questions that Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pa. (CCGP) Executive Director Josh Ercole views as key identifiers of problem gambling: “Have you ever felt the need to bet more and more money?” and “Have you ever felt the need to lie to important people (e.g., family/friends) about how much you gamble?”

In 2019, 33.7 percent of students surveyed reported gambling at least once in their lifetimes, and 9.3 percent had gambled within the 30 days prior to being surveyed. (PAYS data for 2021 have not yet been processed.) A worrying data point is that 4.7 percent of all students surveyed said they had felt the need to bet increasing amounts of money, up from 4.5 percent the prior year, and higher than the 1–3 percent that Ercole said is a typical rate for adults.

According to CCGNJ, 44 percent of New Jersey high school seniors acknowledged betting on sports at least once. Over the past 10 years, the rate of New Jersey middle schoolers who admitted to gambling at least once during the prior year (including lottery tickets, poker games, sports betting, and dice games) fluctuated between 12 to 22 percent.

How can parents tell if their teens are addicted to gambling? Warning signs cited by CCGNJ include borrowing money, selling personal items, a defensive attitude and lying to family and friends about gambling. However, some teens may not always hide their gambling. Showing off large amounts of money and bragging about winnings can also be warning signs of gambling addiction.

Ercole points out that teens who are involved in gambling often partake in a “cluster” of risky behaviors – an observation borne out by the PAYS data. For example, students who reported having consumed beer, wine or hard liquor at least once in their lifetimes were more likely to respond “Yes” to “In the past 30 days, have you bet/gambled for money or anything of value?” than students who had never consumed alcohol. The same was true for students who reported having used marijuana at least once during the past 30 days.

How to get help

Trolaro says the number one thing parents can do is to know the resources that are available. Living in New Jersey, his first call when he realized he needed help was 1-800-GAMBLER.

Teens and families struggling with gambling addiction can visit www.PAcouncil.com (Pa.) or www.800gambler.org (N.J.) to find self-help meetings, gambling counselors, and information on how to set up “self-exclusion” (asking a gambling or gaming location or website not to accept your business for a predefined period of time).

The National Center for Responsible Gaming (www.NCRG.org) also provides resources for parents concerned about teen gambling.

The second thing parents should do, Trolaro said, is to talk to their children, and “approach it with love and compassion. It has to be through a lens of understanding.” A sample conversation might include noting a teen’s increased interest in box scores, and asking if betting on the outcomes of games is a problem the teen is facing. A parent might also remark on the preponderance of DFS ads on television, and ask the teen how he feels about them.

Having real conversations, daily, with teen children is crucial in finding out about addictive behaviors. Trolaro advised against vague questions like “How was your day?” and suggests that parents be more direct: “Tell me something good that happened today” or “Tell me a worry that’s been on your mind” are more likely to start real conversations. “Kids have problems,” Trolaro said, pointing to stress about the coronavirus situation, social media bullying and other issues challenging teens. He advises parents to have the courage to have conversations about their children’s worries and problems.

“It just doesn’t serve anyone well to hide anxieties,” he said.

Del Orbe of CCGNJ agrees. Children are entrusted to parents’ care, he noted, and they won’t always like the things parents do in the children’s best interests.

“I’m not going to let not being popular with [my daughter] every so often, get in the way of doing what’s in her best interests,” he said.

Press graphic courtesy of PGCB The Pa. Gaming Control Board has identified signs of problem gambling. Two of these – increasing bets and lying about gambling – are particularly useful as warning signs for teens, according to Pa. Council on Compulsive Gambling Executive Director Josh Ercole.
Press PHOTO courtesy of PGCB Luis Del Orbe works in prevention and treatment at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of N.J. He advises parents, “The primary purpose of parenting is to raise fully functional, well-rounded adults, who can take care of themselves and make a positive contribution to society.”
press photo courtesy of Daniel Trolaro Daniel Trolaro works for EPIC Risk Management, a private consulting firm specializing in preventing and remediating problem gambling. He shares insights from his work as well as his 12 years in recovery from gambling addiction on a weekly WFAN radio show and podcast.
Data courtesy of Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency; graph by Theresa O'Brien According to statewide data from 2019, a higher number of occasions of consuming alcohol is linked to a higher likelihood of a teen gambling in any 30-day period.