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Problem Gambling Is on the Rise Among Young Men

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

Jonathan Jones traces his gambling struggles back to a videogame he played in the fifth grade. 

Using lunch money or stealing small amounts from his parents, he would buy gaming gift cards and redeem them to spin a virtual wheel of fortune to collect prizes, such as weapons or armor, that could help him win the game, Zu Online, which is now discontinued. He would keep paying to spin again and again, a behavior that he says became compulsive and continued into other games.

By the time he was 20, Mr. Jones says he had spent nearly $40,000 playing videogames and entered a residential treatment program for videogame addiction.

Gaming and gambling problems are surfacing among young men, and increasingly, teen boys, say counselors, therapists and addiction experts. They cite the rise in time spent onlineduring the pandemic, the legalization of sports betting in a growing number of states, and the increasing presence of gambling-like elements in videogames.

“There’s been a big surge of younger and younger people” in gambling support and recovery programs, says Marc Lefkowitz, who chairs the recovery committee for the National Council on Problem Gambling. One addiction-group moderator observed that there were so many young men at a recent meeting that the parking lot looked like a fraternity gathering. 

Teens are affected, too. The number of 11th and 12th grade males experiencing gambling problems, such as lying about how much they lost, or being unable to control their gambling, rose to 8.3% in 2022 from 4.2% in 2018, according to one survey of 7,500 7th through 12th graders in Wood County, Ohio.

People who research and treat problem gambling say the line between gambling and videogaming is blurring. Videogames, which are often played on smartphones as well as computers and game consoles, include features that mimic gambling activities like roulette and slot machines. 

William Ivoska, an addiction researcher who has been conducting the biennial survey in Ohio on youth gambling since 2014, says videogames can start off as free to play but require purchases to increase chances of winning. One common feature, he says, is a loot box, which can be purchased with an adult’s credit or debit card and can include virtual items, like swords or uniforms, that increase players’ abilities. 

“Problematic gaming among adolescents can lead to problematic gambling as an adolescent and as an adult,” Dr. Ivoska says.

For those over 21, the legalization of mobile sports betting in 26 states has made wagering easily available by downloading smartphone apps. 

Young men, who tend to be impulsive and overconfident, are particularly at risk when it comes to sports betting, says Jeff Derevensky, director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors. Players can place multiple bets, such as the number of passes completed by a quarterback, rather than just betting on the final score, compounding losses, he says. 

Jesse Suh, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, says more male college students are coming in for treatment, often at the insistence of parents who discover tuition money and other college expenses have gone toward sports betting and other gambling. Online sports betting is legal in Pennsylvania for those 21 and older.

These young men “have distorted thinking that they are in control and can predict the outcome,” he says, adding that they have easy access to money but don’t really understand the degree of their spending. “It’s hard to recognize the value of money with online transactions,” he says.

To many parents, drugs and alcohol are a bigger worry than gambling. Plenty of young adults and teens bet as a social activity and most don’t develop problems. 

Some addiction counselors, educators and parents are calling for gambling to be included in substance-abuse education. This year, Virginia passed the first state law requiring all public schools to teach students about the risk of gambling. Several other states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin where some forms of gambing are legal, as is the case in Virginia, have gambling-prevention and -education programs for middle schools and high schools.

The American Gaming Association, which represents casinos and gaming vendors, says its members have responsible protocols in place, including age verification, to thwart underage gambling.

The Entertainment Software Association, which represents the videogame industry, says gaming is not the same as gambling, which involves chance. Videogamers receive items in loot boxes or from prize wheels that enhance their experience, it says. Parental controls are also available on consoles and other devices to limit or restrict a child from making purchases within games. 

Young people with gambling addictions often start with compulsive play on videogames as a way to cope with depression and anxiety, says Hilarie Cash, founding member and chief clinical officer of reSTART, which offers residential and outpatient gaming addiction treatment.

Mr. Jones, now 25, says his parents didn’t know the extent of his gambling, or that he used videogames to escape depression and anxiety. He was a star athlete and straight-A student, so his parents considered the games as a way he could unwind. He started skipping family dinner, saying he had to study. His computer and internet had parental controls installed, but he overrode them.

They took him to a therapist when he was in high school and quit giving him cash after he told them that he had stolen from them and used it on videogames. He found other ways to get money, selling birthday or holiday gifts online to get gaming gift cards. If a textbook cost $50, he would tell his parents it cost $100 and use the difference to play games. At one point, he says he cashed his savings and sold stocks that his parents purchased for him. 

“I would lie about how much I spent, mostly because of the shame around it,” says Mr. Jones. 

Mr. Jones spent more than a year at reSTART, returned to college and is working in a research lab. He uses a flip phone, rather than a smartphone where videogames are readily accessible, and continues to see a therapist.

He has learned a lot, he says, and is concerned that kids and parents don’t understand how easily gambling can be done on mobile videogames, or how damaging it can be. 

“You don’t have to go to a casino to lose a lot of money,” he says.

Write to Clare Ansberry at clare.ansberry@wsj.com


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