By Hilary Feldman
COMPLETE THIS PHRASE: “KNOW YOUR LIMIT …”
Seems pretty straightforward, right? But you might be surprised to know that many children can also finish the sentence. Thanks to a massive advertising campaign, BC Lottery Corporation’s catchy slogan is seen and heard everywhere. I even found a hackysack ball with the same words kicking around my car—presumably a summer freebie.
It probably doesn’t seem like a problem, given the message’s meaning. Of course people should understand their own spending budgets for lottery tickets or slot machines. But Sandy Garossino suggests that there are other considerations. A businesswoman, former crown prosecutor, and spokesperson for Vancouver Not Vegas, Garossino spent the past year researching the effects of gambling in British Columbia. And she is particularly concerned about widespread marketing efforts and the effects on our kids.
So what is gambling? At its most basic, gambling occurs when you play a game of chance for money—or something else valuable, like a skateboard, bike, or iPod. Wagering on the outcome of a hockey game, with a favourite DS game as the prize, qualifies as gambling.
In a recent survey of Ontario teenagers, more than 40 percent had taken part in gambling—ranging from lottery tickets to Internet and casino gambling. A small percent, totaling 29,000 students, were problem gamblers. And these kids were more likely to have substance-use problems, carry a weapon, experience depres- sion, or be involved in gang activity. A quarter of these teens have attempted suicide. No parent wants this reality for children in grades 7 to 12. Shockingly enough, the research shows that problem gamblers typically start gambling around age 10.
For kids, gambling takes various forms. Card games are the most common, followed by scratch tickets and lottery tickets. Bingo, sports pools, and dice are also popular. Teens privately bet on the outcome of a wide range of games. Some kids move on to more serious gambling activities, which are correlated with other addictive behaviour.
The BC Lottery Corporation website provides information for parents as part of the GameSense program. Their survey found that 43 percent of BC kids have gambled in the past year. The website points to the role of gambling imagery in normalizing these activities for kids—everything from advertising the next Lotto 6/49 prize to poker on primetime television.
With the spread of legal casinos across BC, exposure to gambling is on the rise. And kids who gamble tend to have parents who also gamble. But surely a poker game with friends is not a problem? And buying tickets for the PNE prize home is a summer tradition for many families. So what’s the big deal?
Due to their growing brains and developing abilities, kids are more susceptible to risky behaviour. They may not see any negative consequences. In fact, research suggests that taking risks is considered both fun and necessary. Many kids think that there is an element of skill in gambling, and that practice leads to more chance of winning. Kids don’t see gambling as an issue—so they may not recognize a problem until it has ballooned out of control. Unfortunately, at this point debts may seem insurmountable and kids become desperate.
Garossino suggests that parents should tune into the prevalence of gambling. “Go into any 7/11 and see if you can walk past the cash register without seeing advertising for lotteries,“ Garossino points out. “If you look at a lot of the BC Lottery Corporation marketing, it is directed around sports. So it’s young males who are at risk. The addiction rate amongst young males is very high. So they begin that awareness really early, and the association between professional sports and gambling is just getting tighter and tighter.” The increasing connection between video games, the internet, and gambling is another way to attract underage consumers. Increased exposure to gambling marketing and imagery normalizes it in society. Just a generation ago, very little gambling was allowed in Canada. Now it is everywhere, but most people have not asked any questions about the effects. Garossino recommends that parents should start to flag these things and be aware of the dangers. “We can’t over-react to everything that our kids are exposed to. It’s really an issue of awareness and just caution.” Garossino says. Talk to your kids about what they’re seeing in BC Lottery Corporation ads. Ask who is really winning in this game? Point out that people are paying for the chance that—just maybe–they’ll be winners. Garossino reminds, “This is really a way to get people to give their money away for free, basically.”
Even young children may be exposed to basic games of chance. For instance, popular games on the Webkinz website include the Wishing Well, which looks like a slot machine, and the Wheel of Wow, resembling a simple roulette wheel. Webkinz addresses concerns by explaining that these games do not involve any actual wagers and work more like random prize generators. That said, many children log on to Webkinz daily to spin the wheel, which is limited to one game per day.
The Neopets website has 39 games of luck and chance, including scratchcards, dice, a wheel, Neopet fights, and a tombola. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained— are you willing to risk it all” is the hook, and players bet virtual Neopoints. An additional consideration, you can buy Neocash with real money—blurring the line between virtual and real gambling.
Of course, most people can take part in gambling activities without developing problems. As Garossino points out, “There will always be gamblers. Gambling is fun for a lot of people, and it’s harmless for most people. But we have to be much more conscious of the downside.” Families need to talk about their own values, beliefs, and expectations around gambling. It’s important to dispel the “get rich quick” idea, so kids can think about how money is earned and spent responsibly. Like with so many difficult issues, parents need to maintain a healthy attitude and have open discussions with their kids.