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Youth gambling in Australia


Youth gambling in Australia is a production of the Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, which is located at the University of Tasmania and funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education. Youth gambling in Australia was written and presented by Dr Lyn McGaurr. The technical producer was Brian Beha, working in the studios of Edge Radio at the University of Tasmania.


Dr Sally Gainsbury
A postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Gambling Research and Education at Southern Cross University, Dr Sally Gainsbury is currently investigating interactive gambling in Australia. Read more

Sophie Vasiliadis
A PhD student at the University of Melbourne and a senior research officer at the Australian Gambling Research Centre at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Sophie Vasiliadis has been researching youth gambling since 2007. Read more

Ben Ross
A health promotion officer with the Gambling Support Program in Tasmania’s Department of Health and Human Services, Ben Ross has extensive professional experience in the youth sector and in managing large public education campaigns.

Twenty-year-old university student Peter (not his real name) shares his experiences of playing poker and videogames online.


Presenter: Welcome to Youth gambling in Australia, a podcast in the Face the Facts series, which is a production of the Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies.

Peter: I think the main thing is the thrill you get when you win. If you’re on a winning streak or something, it gets quite exhilarating and you get excited about it and you feel pretty good about it, and that’s what I like about it, although if you start losing then that kind of all goes down the drain and you get a bit frustrated with it I guess.

Presenter: Peter (not his real name) is 20 years old and plays poker online. He’s one of a growing number of young punters attracted by the convenience of the internet. He’s confident his gambling doesn’t cause problems for him ­or his family and friends, but he’s agreed to participate in our podcast to give a first-hand account of gambling online.

Peter: I’ve been involved in online poker especially – it’s probably the biggest thing I’ve been involved with – whether with real money or through other sites that have the sort of in-game currency, and I’ve also played a bit of blackjack online, but not as much as poker.

Presenter: Many people are surprised to learn that young Australians are much more likely to be problem gamblers or at-risk of problem gambling than the general adult population. Peter has found that even young people playing with in-game money or points can react badly to a loss.

Peter: I even knew someone who, just on games, would get really angry if they lost and would chuck tantrums, punch in walls, if it was like a big stake or a big loss, I guess. And then other people definitely – I can see people would get depressed. Even I do get upset kind of, if it’s something I put heaps of time into and, bam, it’s all gone, after five minutes of betting against someone. And then if you bring that into the real world you could potentially lose thousands of dollars and years of work, like in the real world, and that would definitely lead to depression I reckon, especially with some people.

Presenter: Sophie Vasiliadis is senior research officer for the new Australian Gambling Research Centre at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. She's been working on youth gambling as a researcher and PhD student at the University of Melbourne since 2007. Like a range of academics in Australia and overseas, she’s concerned by the statistics.

Sophie Vasiliadis: The rates of moderate-risk gambling and problem gambling are very significant among young adults. They’re much higher – at least four times higher – amongst young adults and adolescents as well, from the data that we have from previous studies, compared to adults. 

Presenter: At the Centre for Gambling Research and Education at Southern Cross University, postdoctoral research fellow Dr Sally Gainsbury and her colleagues are studying interactive gambling. If a generational shift in gambling is under way, today’s young people will be among the first to experience any negative consequences that might accompany it.

Dr Sally Gainsbury: The use of the internet by young people has really been a fundamental shift in how people are exposed to gambling. There’ve been laws, and there still are codes of conduct on how you can advertise gambling in the general media, but when people can access any website around the world, they’re able to then be shown content with off-shore gambling sites pushing these pop-up ads and banner ads and content specifically about gambling to young people, and then it’s just a click away for a young person to enter an online gambling site. If it’s an illegal off-shore site there might be no age restrictions and people can start to gamble, particularly with promotional money. It’s often you get a bonus sign-up credit to start an account and it’s only after you’ve spent that free money that you realise that you can’t take any money out until you’ve put your own money in, and that’s when all the terms and conditions start to come in. By that stage the operators have the information of the young person and they can continue to bombard them with advertisements and targeted incentives to really try and encourage them to gamble further and further.

Presenter: As well as playing online poker, Peter is a fan of videogames. When Peter refers to games and gaming, he’s talking about videogames, whereas researchers tend to apply those terms to poker machines, which are still the country’s most problematic form of gambling.

Similarly, when Peter talks about playing poker, he’s referring to online versions of the card game, not poker machines in casinos and clubs.

Peter: On specific sites I ended up getting, becoming one of the best in Tasmania for that specific app or game. Other than that I’ve ended up losing most of the money on other things.

Presenter: In his own experience online, Peter has noticed that people can be targeted by the gambling industry even when they are not on a gambling site.

Peter: And then social media sites – like I said, heaps of them have little games you can play on there that are sort of gambling related – even just poker ones or blackjack ones, stuff like that. And then if you have ads on – although I use Adblock on the internet generally – if you’re playing those sort of games then you get advertisements on the side as well – you’ll get advertisements to poker sites, though I’m not sure if that changes depending on your age or not, but I certainly would, if I turned my ads on.

Dr Sally Gainsbury: So young people are now being more and more bombarded with information about gambling and that message that it’s a normal part of life without the same balanced message about the risks and potential problems involved with it.

Presenter: Ben Ross is Health Promotion Officer with the Gambling Support Program in the Department of Health and Human Services in Tasmania. He's concerned about what he describes as the ubiquity of gambling today.

Ben Ross: I guess the picture for me is one of where the availability of gambling products is increasing and so the broader picture is that gambling seems to be almost a ubiquitous form of entertainment and recreation in many areas of cultural activity where previously it wasn’t. And particularly with the internet, where gambling options are there all the time anywhere, then that is probably worth examining in terms of a societal impact.

Presenter: But it’s not just the technology of gambling practice and gambling promotion that’s changing. Sally Gainsbury and her colleagues have preliminary findings to suggest that the types of people attracted to online betting are different from those who choose land-based forms. Their findings have implications for young people.

Dr Sally Gainsbury: So one of the biggest predictors of someone gambling online is younger age and being a male. So young males are more likely to gamble online, and people who gamble online are most likely to use sports betting, race wagering and also poker, compared to people who gamble in venues, who are more likely to play gaming machines, so there does seem to be a bit of a generational shift towards online gambling, and sports betting in particular has been a target for Australia because we’ve recently had a large increase in the number of advertisements that have been shown.

Presenter: New pressures posed by the rising visibility of sports betting, intensive marketing of gambling – both online and in association with sport ­– and the easy accessibility of gambling websites can be a heady mix, particularly for young men.

Peter: Especially on those poker games, it’s something that I’ve done as well, but even just the in-game currency type ones, they always have, while you’re sitting there waiting for your hand you can play slots, which is obviously going to get rid of your money more quickly than playing poker, if you’re good at it, because there’s no skill involved in playing slots – it’s just playing and losing money, basically.

Presenter: Sophie Vasiliadis warns that the consequences for young problem gamblers can be severe and long lasting. In many cases, they will also impact on family and friends.

Sophie Vasiliadis: I know of a case where there was a young guy about 19, 20 years old poured tens of thousands of dollars into poker machines at a TAB, and through various things that happened over time he’s ended up with his mother and grandmother – two of his major caregivers – not talking to each other as a result of his problems and he’s got $50,000, I think, to pay back, and he did steal money as well, so he’s possibly facing jail at the same time. So it has enormous impacts, not just on the person but family and friends as well, and for their future too. If he does end up in jail, the prospects are possibly affected.

Presenter: Many problem gamblers recall beginning to gamble early in life, so it may be of concern that some videogames now incorporate gambling-type features, as Peter noticed when he was very young.

Peter: Yeah, I reckon when I was about 14 there were a few games out – probably two or three that I used to play. I used to have heaps of little games when I was young. And most of them you would go around you’d earn in-game currency doing things from killing monsters or collecting stuff throughout the world. But then could go to a duelling place or a gambling house – it wasn’t called a gambling house but that’s basically what it was – where you could go and do things from duelling other people, where you would stake your money against them and whoever would win would win it but basically it was a 50/50 chance.

Presenter: Researchers at the University of Adelaide, such as Dr Daniel King, are concerned that playing videogames might prime adolescents for gambling later in life. Peter believes it’s already happening.

Peter: When I was a bit younger – when I was in high school there were a few people that were only a bit older than me that were starting to get right into it through games generally at that age and then when they turned 18 they’d go to the casino quite a bit – most weekends they’d go to the casino and have a go at poker, but then also a lot of those guys would then start playing the pokies as well and that’s wasting money there – there’s no way you can end up winning really, so yeah they got into other side of things which weren’t as good I guess. Poker’s not that bad if you're good at it, but it can lead to other things I think.

Presenter: Research indicates that one of the main reasons young people are more prone to problem gambling than older people is that they are risk-takers by nature.

Dr Sally Gainsbury: Most young people are curious about anything they’re told they can’t do, so any sort of legal activity they can’t access they might intrinsically be interested in. Young people do, we know from research, dabble in various types of gambling. They’re often given lottery tickets or scratchies as a young person as a present. They might get a parent or an older friend to place a bet for them on a sporting event. Melbourne Cup sweeps are pretty commonly run even in primary school, so our young Australians are really exposed to gambling at all levels. Obviously there’s also advertising in television, in media and also on the internet, so they’re exposed to a culture of gambling. People, and in particular young males who are interested in a quick buck or making some money, might think it’s very glamorous and exciting and entertaining, and they’re more likely to seek out these betting and gaming opportunities. As long as their gambling is an entertainment activity, it’s just important that people are aware of the risks involved, and young people in particular are more likely to discount the risks or not be aware of them, and end up spending money in developing gambling habits and patterns, particularly young people who engage in other risky activities such as alcohol and drug use – that’s also associated with gambling.

Presenter: Another risk factor for problem gambling, according to Sophie Vasiliadis, is boredom.

Sophie Vasiliadis: So people who live further out of the city – central Melbourne for example, I’m quite Melbourne-focused, but out of city centres in general, actually – they’re more likely to gamble and a part of the reason is simply that there aren’t any other activities to do. Go out to Melton, for example, which is about a 30–40 minute drive out of Melbourne CBD and there’s not a great deal more to do. You go down to a pokies venue and whole families go on a Friday night to a pokies venue, have dinner and then sit on the pokies for a couple of hours. And that’s a family activity. Now that might be fine for some families but that is – we know that's also a real risk factor. Those young people going with their families are much more likely to become problem gamblers down the track, either within six months or even within 20 years. Either way it’s putting them in a position of greater risk.

Presenter: It’s not always easy to know if a young person is gambling too much. For example, they are less likely to have physical symptoms than people who drink too much or take illicit drugs. But it’s important for parents, teachers and friends to be aware that if a young person’s behaviour changes in a way that concerns them, gambling may be responsible.

Ben Ross: I think ‘individual’ is the key term in this question and that is that the costs if you like vary according to the individual, and so although we can make general statements I think one young person’s gambling issues may differ from another. But my understanding is that say if a young person is in a pattern of gambling and losing more money than they can afford that can have impacts on their sense of self-esteem, their friendships and things if they’re feeling down, or particularly if they’ve borrowed money from somebody or their family, and that can create some stress. And in terms of what I was saying before, the interrelatedness of different behaviours, research is showing us anyway that if a young person is taking risks in one area such as alcohol or smoking, or excessive videogaming then they can also have a tendency to gambling beyond what is maybe healthy.

Presenter: Sally Gainsbury says any indications that a young person’s gambling is getting out of hand should be addressed immediately, because it’s much easier to prevent a problem than change entrenched habits.

Dr Sally Gainsbury: For gamblers themselves, if they’re starting to hide something from friends and family, or if friends and family are expressing concerns it is really important to be aware that gambling in private and hiding and lying and cheating and stealing – they’re all signs of gambling problems being started. So if someone’s starting to think that they need to lie about their gambling that’s a pretty big sign that they perhaps should be talking even more about it. And for parents and friends of people who are gambling, they should try and have an open dialogue to make sure someone’s gambling at the right level.

Presenter: One of the public education programs Ben Ross manages encourages responsible gambling by teaching people about the house edge. The rationale is that if people have a better understanding of how games of chance work, they will be less likely to chase a win when they can no longer afford to keep playing.

Ben Ross: The gambling support program has, for the last few years, been providing information about how the house edge works, and through media campaigns and community projects and through the production of some video resources and other resources. And the reason we do that is that the most recent Productivity Commission report found that some people’s decisions to gamble beyond what they can afford are based on a lack of understanding about how commercial games of chance work, particularly not understanding that the longer somebody bets on a particular game – and this is particularly true of poker machines – the less likely they are to win, which is contrary to some common beliefs – and that is that they’ll win in the long run.

Presenter: Peter has developed his own strategies for ensuring his gambling does not become problematic.

Peter: Generally if I do go into something where I know I could lose money then I would generally have a maximum amount of money that I would put into it, whether it be in-game or real life. So normally it would be a certain percentage of the money I have, depending on how likely I think it is that I’m going to win, so if it’s on a poker game or something I might only buy into a table with five to 10 per cent of my money, so even if I lose everything I’ve got, I’ve still got plenty left. And then if I do lose everything, I generally wait until another day or another week or something. You sort of come in with a clear mind, then you’re not angry about it any more – it seems to help.

Presenter: Sophie Vasiliadis says it’s also important to make sure young people have healthy alternatives to gambling.

Sophie Vasiliadis: We have found that things like just giving a person, actually, whatever age they are, an alternative entertainment opportunity actually makes a huge difference. A lot of people don’t even think of what else they could be doing with their time and their money. And also young people are real thrill seekers. So I think there needs to be an understanding and an acknowledgement of the fact that you do need to provide young people with opportunities to do something really exciting and that’s not too expensive either.

Presenter: Public education, individual strategies and alternative forms of entertainment can all help young people avoid becoming problem gamblers. But when these approaches fail, however, young people may require professional help. Unfortunately, they are less likely to seek assistance than older gamblers.

Sophie Vasiliadis: I think there’s a bit of stigma for young people as well. What often happens is families step in and pay off their debts and try to deal with it all within the family, and people really don’t want to talk about it. So I think that’s a major barrier for young people in getting treatment, and appropriate treatment.

Presenter: One answer might be to provide counselling online, because young people are comfortable with interacting this way.

Dr Sally Gainsbury: I’ve written a series of articles looking at the importance of providing counselling options for gamblers, including young adults, online. Online help, including self-help options and more formal counselling or helplines through chat or email, is a really important way for young people who communicate through electronic means now almost as much, if not more in some cases, than they do face to face. So having an option to speak to someone – a professional – or get some self-help tools through a website, through a mobile application or through an online chat or email exchange is a way of avoiding the problem – someone might not want to pick up the phone to speak to someone directly but they might be willing to go a less direct route. It feels more anonymous when you're typing – it’s a little bit easier to express yourself and to not worry so much about the stigma of what someone’s thinking when you’re typing, as opposed to when you’re speaking. So having various options for young people online to seek help and find that information is really critical.

Presenter: One thing that seems clear is that more research is needed to help policymakers, youth workers, teachers and young people manage the pressures of living in a world where gambling is increasingly visible, accessible and intermeshed with popular culture.

Ben Ross: One of the challenges for developing education for young people around sports betting is that the context within which sports betting occurs is a cultural and societal context where sport is a very important part of our culture and young people participate in that both as players, obviously, but as spectators, and we have to be careful how we talk about sport so as not to alienate our audience, if you like. I mean we have to, as a government agency responsible for providing information, not appear judgemental about the things that are going on out in the community that are supported. That being said, I think there’s quite a strong community backlash around sports betting at the moment, and there’s probably a degree of tolerance and acceptance for messages that are coming out now about sports betting as being contrary to the integrity of those cultural activities.

Presenter: To better understand how young people gamble on sport, Tasmania's Gambling Support unit has commissioned new research.

Ben Ross: My personal view at the moment, prior to having done this research, is that we need to be addressing the changes to the way spectators experience sport and the changes in young people’s relationship with the experience of sport but emphasising that the enjoyment of experiencing the game isn’t diminished – I guess that would be one key message. So, okay, if we’re not going to make a judgement about betting on a sport, can we make a judgement that the enjoyment of the game itself as a spectator activity isn’t diminished through the participation in gambling around sport?

Dr Sally Gainsbury: There’s been a lot of effort put on gaming machines, which is very appropriate because they are the biggest cause of problem gambling in Australia, but it’s important to make sure that the efforts are somewhat balanced across means, so that someone who goes into a gaming venue does need responsible gambling messages and specific strategies, but we also need specific strategies for online gambling, because it’s a very different type of gambling. You can’t just put the same strategies in place. There are different types of people who use these forms. So it’s important for responsible gambling measures to be introduced on gambling websites in as robust a nature as possible to ensure that people who do gamble online have the tools and the messaging and the information to allow them to be informed in how they’re placing bets.

Ben Ross: If a young person was to say that they wanted to start gambling when they turned 18 I would certainly say be aware of the way that the gambling game works in terms of your odds of winning or losing, best not to gamble what you can’t afford to lose, think of it as a bit of fun and not as a way to make money.