Rolling the dice on addiction

Place your bets

Jumbo jackpots. Bonus bucks. Fan cash. Easy deposits. Quick withdrawals.

Today, glitzy promotions for online casinos, poker, sports betting, and online lotteries fill the airwaves and social media channels. Charismatic sports figures and celebrities now endorse and promote rapidly growing sportsbooks.

The American public is taking it all in. And gambling activity, both online and in person, has surged to an all-time high.

The proliferation of sports betting and online casino apps has turned millions of ordinary cell phones into personal, portable mini-casinos with 24/7 access ― but not just for adults over 21.

Growing evidence suggests college students, teenagers, and even children are being exposed to the allure of online gambling, and increasing numbers of these young bettors are getting hooked.

That trend worries public health experts at the University of Michigan and top officials at the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).

“This is an emerging public health issue, not only for adults but also for children,” says Daniel Kruger, a research assistant professor who recently departed U-M’s Institute for Social Research (ISR).

“We are seeing a toxic combination of social media, cell phones, and online gambling,” he explains. “All have addictive properties that make individuals vulnerable to dependency and addiction.”

Igniting a betting bonanza

The spark that ignited the current betting bonanza was a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law prohibiting sports gambling. This landmark decision gave states the green light to legalize sports betting.

Currently, 38 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of sports betting. And its popularity has exploded.

In 2023, sports betting jumped nearly 45 percent and iGaming popped up 23 percent year-over-year, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA). Altogether, online gaming generated $16.43 billion ― nearly a quarter of the record-breaking $66.52 billion the commercial gaming industry raked in last year. The AGA expects that adding tribal gaming proceeds will push the figure to $110 billion.

In advance of Super Bowl LVIII in February, an AGA survey projected that a record 67.8 million American adults (26 percent) were expected to wager an eye-popping $23.1 billion on the NFL annual championship game, up 35 percent from $16 billion in 2023.

College sports also have become fair game for the gaming industry.

In recent years, several major university athletic departments have inked sponsorship deals allowing Caesars Sportsbook to advertise sports betting at athletic events and on campus. After indignation and opposition erupted among faculty and state legislators, some agreements were shelved.

Gauging gambling’s inroads

Shohei Ohtani

Read about what the  Shohei Ohtani gambling scandal means for his career, fans, and the LA Dodgers. (This image, by Mogami “Tosa” Kariya, Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed, shows Ohtani as a Los Angeles Angel.)

Problem gambling is often called “the hidden addiction,” and determining the exact number of affected bettors is difficult. Moreover, compulsive gamblers are often reluctant to admit they have a problem and seek help.

Recently, several national surveys have attempted to gauge the inroads that gambling has made among young people.

In May 2023, the NCAA released sports wagering survey data showing “many young adults are wagering on sports, often despite age or geographic restrictions on legal sports betting,” according to a news release on the website.

Opinion Diagnostics conducted a survey of 3,527 respondents between the ages of 18-22 using a national online panel that reflected the total population of that age group. The panel included both college students and young adults not attending college.

The NCAA survey reveals sports wagering is pervasive among 18- to 22-year-olds and widespread on college campuses. Specifically, the data show:

  • 58 percent of all respondents have engaged in at least one sports betting activity.
  • 67 percent of students on campus are bettors and tend to bet more frequently than their peers.
  • 41 percent of college students who bet on sports have placed a bet on their school’s teams, and 35 percent have used a student bookmaker.
  • Advertisements have a significant influence on betting activity. 63 percent of on-campus students recall seeing betting ads, and 58 percent of those students indicate they are more likely to bet after seeing the ads.
  • Problem gambling is evident among the entire 18- to 22-year-old population, with 16 percent saying they have engaged in at least one risky behavior and 6 percent reporting they have lost more than $500 on sports betting in a single day.

Teens and children also are susceptible to gambling advertisements and the risk of developing a gambling addiction as a result of online betting, according to a recent national poll conducted at U-M. The University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health based its findings on responses from 923 parents with at least one child between 14-18 years old.

According to the results:

  • A third of the parents polled report that they or another adult in their household participate in online, in-person, or social betting.
  • Two-thirds of the parents say their teen has a bank account or debit/credit card in their own name that could be used to register for online betting platforms.
  • One in six parents admits they probably wouldn’t know if their child was betting online.
  • A quarter of parents who have talked with their teen about some aspect of online betting also discussed youth risks, including going into debt or developing a gambling addiction.

Ramping up Resources

Last year, U-M’s University Health Service began offering addiction-focused medical care on the Ann Arbor campus to treat behavioral addictions related to phones, shopping, pornography, sex, and gambling, as well as substance abuse involving alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs.

To date, only a small handful of U-M students have sought help for gambling disorders, reports Medical Director Christopher Frank, M.D., B.S. ’98.

However, that number may reflect common misperceptions about why gambling addiction develops and how it can be treated in a medical setting.

“We know that gambling, especially in-game betting, is good at triggering some of the reward pathways that create compulsive behavior and addiction,” Frank explains. “Some people can gamble at a certain level without losing control. But a small subset can go off the rails, and it’s hard to predict who they are.”

Slippery slope

Like addictive drugs, online sports betting and casino gambling are designed to be habit-forming. Gamblers now have easy access to betting apps online and get a quick response after they place a wager. The random nature of winning and losing motivates bettors to keep playing in hopes of winning more money.

Over time, bettors may need to gamble more often to feel the same thrill. Some may experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability when they try to cut back or stop.

At the University Health Service, patients with gambling and other behavioral addictions initially receive psychosocial treatment or motivational interviewing.

“Our staff tries to help students figure out how to manage their addiction and get themselves out of a difficult cycle,” Frank says. “We can also refer patients for specialized counseling through the U-M Addiction Treatment Services in the Psychiatry Department.”

On a statewide basis, problem gambling helpline calls and referrals to treatment are trending higher. Calls to the state’s helpline — 1-800-270-7117 — more than doubled to 3,471 in 2023 from 1,591 in 2020, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Last year, online gambling-related inquiries accounted for 40 percent of the 481 referrals to treatment.

Putting up stronger guardrails

Online sports betting and gambling may be legal, but is this healthy for our society?

ISR’s Kruger thinks the payoff may not be worth the price individuals and their families pay for addiction.

Stronger guardrails are needed, he insists, to prevent young bettors from getting swept up in the current gambling craze.

“We should think about this at the policy level,” Kruger says. “Raising awareness and putting regulations in place to make it more difficult for children to access online betting could reduce the harm caused by the gambling system.”

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