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Common indicators of problematic youth gambling and gaming

29 May 2023 - by YMCA of Greater Toronto
Youth gambling: the basics

The YMCA Youth Gambling Awareness Program (YGAP) defines gambling as risking something of value when you don’t know if you will win or lose. This definition includes traditional forms of gambling such as casino games, but also includes non-traditional forms of gambling that are popular with youth today.
“Gambling is nothing new for youth. It’s been going on for years, such as playing claw machines at the movie theatre or games at the local fair where you pay to play and hope to win,” says Katie Spears, Outreach Specialist with the YMCA of Three Rivers in Guelph.

"YGAP runs gambling awareness workshops throughout Ontario to educate youth and learn more about their experiences with gambling and games says Sally Herod, Program Coordinator for the YMCA Youth Gambling Awareness Program (YGAP). Typically, we talk about how much money is spent playing these arcade games and the stuffed animals that can be won – or not! At one camp workshop, I remember a youth no older than 11, telling the group that he and his friends had played a claw machine game for his birthday and they'd spent all their money playing again and again, trying to win a certain prize till they were out of money!”

Sally warns that even though children don’t have the same financial responsibilities as adults, it is important for them to learn to set limits.

Problematic youth gambling

Studies from the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) have shown that youth are experiencing rates of problematic gambling 2-4 times higher than the adult population. Just like adults, it is important for youth to know about the risks associated with gambling, and ways to stay safe when these gambling opportunities are presented to them. It is equally important to learn about warning signs of problematic behaviors, and where to access help.

Could your teen or tween be developing a problem?

Identifying problems with gaming or gambling is not always obvious. Youth also typically exhibit different warning signs of problematic behavior than adults.
“With adults, it’s really hard to notice problem gambling at its early stages — it is known in the mental health community and with professionals as a hidden problem,” says Kristie Matte, Youth Outreach Worker for YMCA of Southwestern Ontario serving Windsor & Essex County. “With youth it’s a little bit different.”

Some signs are more obvious: they’re using mom or dad’s credit card without their knowledge to pay for in-game purchases, lying about their gaming habits and how long or often they’re playing, or even stealing to pay for purchases. But there are less obvious warning signs, too.

For example, they might be stressed or anxious when they’re unable to participate in a gaming activity. Or they might spend more time playing than they intended; instead of an hour or two, they’re up all night. Or they might avoid spending time with friends and family in order to play a certain game.
“Youth may not necessarily want to do chores, but if they cannot get off their phone or a video game after you’ve told them many times, that’s when we’d say it’s a warning sign,” says Matte.

Parents and caregivers could also talk to their teen or tween about unrealistic expectations around gambling.
“This means that someone is making a bet and believing they have control over something that’s entirely or majority chance-based,” says Herod. “If they’re chasing losses — they’ve made a bet and lost, but continue to play with the intention they’re going to win their money back — that could be problematic.”

Youth using their phone

Common warning signs

Problems with gambling or gaming are often easy to conceal or even be mistaken for other issues. YMCA’s Youth Gambling Awareness Program helps youth, parents, guardians and educators understand the warning signs and when to seek help.

Some common indicators of a teen displaying a gambling/gaming problem can include:

  • Absences from school, work, or extracurricular activities

  • Experiencing strong emotions when losing (known as “Gamer Rage”)

  • Difficulty focusing on anything other than gaming/gambling

  • Pulling away from friends, family, or social activities

  • Difficulty sleeping at night or falling asleep during school hours

Staying safe through harm reduction

It is important to remember that not all gambling and gaming leads to problems. Implementing the following strategies can help reduce the potential harms from gambling/gaming:

  • Set time and money limits when playing

  • Emphasize balance by participating in other activities regularly

  • Encourage cool-off periods between games and taking frequent breaks

  • Ensure get enough sleep, activity, and nutrition

  • Prioritize school, work, and chores before playing

Helping resources and additional supports

There are plenty of free support services and resources available if you or someone in your life is experiencing problems with gambling or gaming. Game Quitters is a YouTube channel and community forum designed to help with video gaming problems. Kids Mental Health provides informational articles and guides, while the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) offers treatment services for problem gambling, gaming and internet use.

Visit YGAP’s website or contact a YGAP Youth Outreach Worker in your region if you would like to book a free workshop and learn more about youth gambling and gaming, warning signs and where to reach out for help and support.


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