Childhood gambling: A parent's guide to risks and prevention

With the rise of gamification, social media, and online gaming, there's a lot out there vying for children's attention. Here's our guide to helping you, as a parent, prevent your child from gambling.
Written by Taylor Leamey, Contributing Writer

The games your child plays online or on a mobile device could be introducing them to forms of gambling. Young children are sometimes exposed to games with similar reward structures found in adults-only gambling settings. Online gaming, apps, and sports bets are a few types of simulated forms of gambling that don't always involve money but can serve as a gateway to real gambling.

In psychiatric literature, gambling is considered a behavioral addiction. A 2017 report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found adolescent online gambling has become an issue of international concern. In 2018, Fatherly reported the rate of gambling addiction in young people ages 14 to 19 can be up to seven times higher than in adults. And a 2018 report by The Guardian found the number of 11- to 16-year-olds classified as problem gamblers in Britain quadrupled in two years.

As a parent, it's important to be aware of the media your child interacts with. With the rise of gamification, social media, and online gaming, there's a lot out there vying for children's attention.

When children do participate in online media that mimics gambling, it can also lead to increased exposure to untrustworthy websites. For example, pop-up ads for games might entice a child to sign up and give away personal information, or the app might install malware on a device or otherwise take advantage of the young gamer.

This guide explains the online gambling threats children encounter, what parents can do to mitigate them, and how to have meaningful conversations with children about the risks gambling poses.

How online gambling has become more prevalent among children

It's usually not labeled as "gambling," but many popular online games for kids involve chance and rewards -- just like gambling. Parents should be aware of gaming elements that mimic gambling, as well as popular influencers peddling "mystery boxes" that essentially steal kids' (or their parents') money.

Online gaming

Online gaming motivates kids to progress in a game, often by obtaining items. To get these items, some games gamify the process in a similar way to gambling: They ask players to spend real money for the chance to acquire items that help them progress. 

It's important to note the difference between downloadable content (DLC) that asks players to pay for specific content, like additional levels or new characters, and DLC that asks for money in exchange for randomized rewards. Many games allow you to purchase content online, but randomized rewards are what mimics gambling.

If your child plays games online, be aware of these elements that can lead to child and adolescent gambling.

loot box is a game element that is like a grab bag treasure box. Gamers can purchase them and will only find out the elements inside (a weapon, for example) when they open them. Loot boxes can be traded or sold within a game for other in-game currency. Loot boxes are a gaming element that has been condemned by the government of Belgium, investigated by the government of Sweden, and restricted by the Chinese government. In 2019, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley proposed the bill Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act, which would prohibit selling loot boxes to children under the age of 18.

Skins betting is an online gaming term that takes the form of gambling, but instead of gambling with money, gamers use "skins." A skin is a graphic that changes the appearance of a character in a video game. For example, a skin might be a graphic that turns a plain gun into one with unique colors and designs. There are third-party sites where gamers can gamble with their skins, using them as a virtual currency. To get a skin in the first place, a gamer typically has to purchase it with real money transacted within the game.

Games that enable live chat during gameplay enable players to challenge each other within a game and make live bets. With online payment apps like PayPal and Apple Pay, it's easy to demand payment right after winning a game.

Kids and teens who are fans of esports competitions may find a way to bet on games. A 2019 report by VentureBeat found esports betting was on pace to reach $8 billion, with expected growth to more than $16 billion a year in the near future.

Other online gaming models, like freemium games, can create addictive behaviors akin to compulsive gambling. For example, a game like Pokémon GO, which is free to sign up for, contains multiple in-app purchase options, from new outfits for a character to items that help a player progress in a game. There's no limit to how much a gamer can spend in real money in exchange for virtual "coins" that can be used to purchase items in an online game.

Influencers on social media

In addition to the addictive elements of online gaming, social media influencers have promoted forms of gambling. Their messages are seen by kids and teens, whose trust in the influencer may lead to gambling.

For example, in December 2018, YouTube influencer Jake Paul (who has more than 19.8 million subscribers) posted a video for Mystery Brand that has been seen more than 3 million times. The business, now defunct, charged users money to purchase a digital box, which would be filled with random items, ranging from a fidget spinner to sneakers, and sent to the purchaser's home. Vox reports users who opened the "Chanel" box, which cost $99, might receive a Chanel nail polish bottle valued at $28. Purchasers from Mystery Brand often reported prizes took several months to be received, or never came at all, and lacked tracking information. 

Another YouTube influencer, RiceGum, also promoted Mystery Brand and later issued an apology video after coming under fire for promoting gambling to kids.

Similar stories are still occurring. In December 2019, influencer Ridhwan Azman, a Singapore YouTuber with more than 570 000 subscribers, posted a video for mystery box site DrakeMall, which was still in operation as of March 2020.

Online gaming is another growing area for affiliate marketers, who receive commissions based on conversions from their content. VentureBeat explains some of the vast potentials for affiliate marketing in online gaming:

• Posting affiliate links in videos and descriptions

•  Displaying affiliate promo codes during gaming streams

•  Encouraging gamers to play games repeatedly

Affiliate marketers have the potential to earn more when they create gaming addicts for the games they're promoting. When those games contain gambling-like elements, the risk for addictive behavior spreads.

How to protect kids and monitor internet usage

Parents must be aware of how their children are spending their time online to prevent gambling behaviors. 

"Children are growing up in a very different world to the one in which their parents did," writes Marc Etches, CEO of GambleAware, on The Guardian. "We all share in the responsibility for preventing the harms that arise from gambling, and especially for protecting our children."

These tips will help you protect kids and monitor how they use the web.

Use internet provider parental controls

Most home internet providers give users the capability to set parental controls. Here's how to set parental controls with some of the most popular internet providers.

• AT&T: AT&T's Purchase Blocker enables parents to block mobile purchases from ringtones and apps that are billed to a wireless account. You can also block certain websites and apps and control smartphone screen time using the AT&T Secure Family app.

Comcast/Xfinity: Use the Xfinity xFi app to set controls on websites children can visit and content that can be consumed while streaming. The Norton Security Suite filters out inappropriate content and enables monitoring of internet activity to prevent identity theft.

•  Verizon: The Verizon Family Safeguards & Controls enable setting data usage limits and setting age restrictions on content. Parents can view and manage activity, schedule time restrictions, and more.

• Charter/Spectrum: You can use Spectrum's Security Suite to set parental controls for content and set time limits for internet usage.

• Frontier: Frontier internet services enable you to set up parental controls with a Windows computer and give each Frontier account individual parental settings. Parental control capabilities include being able to set browsing time limits and control browsing content.

Install parental control software

There's an abundance of parental control software available. Below are some popular options:

•  Net Nanny: This program enables parents to monitor users' digital habits and limit screen time. Net Nanny also filters the content using artificial intelligence to protect web browsing. You can get instant reporting of online searches, see the apps your kids are using, and get real-time alerts for questionable content.

•  My Mobile Watchdog: A service that enables you to access your kids' text messages, contacts, and call logs. You can also block apps and websites with the service.

•  KidLogger: Parental control software that shows how long your child is using a PC computer, which apps they're using on an Android, Windows, or Mac device, which websites were visited, and more.

•  Qustodio: Allows parents to monitor kids' activities in real-time. The app works on iOS, Android, Kindle, Mac, and Windows devices. You can block inappropriate content, limit screen time, and set time limits for and block games and apps.

•  Kaspersky Safe Kids: This program works on PC, Mac, and mobile devices and enables parents to manage screen time. Parents can regulate activities, see usage reports, and customize settings. You can also block websites and manage access to games and apps.

The device your child uses may also have built-in parental controls. Talk with your smartphone provider to see what apps they recommend.

Set usage limits

You can use a free app to control how much time kids spend on their smartphones. For example, the Google Family Link for parents app enables parents to set screen limits and manage app usage. Apple's newest operating system (iOS 13) also has screen time limit capabilities, app limits, and other parental usage limit controls, which can be useful for iPhones and iPads. 

Talk to your kids

Communicate with your children about the dangers lurking online and what to look out for. Children start using devices as young as toddler age, so they have frequent conversations early on.

You can initiate conversations using external cues. If there's a kid on TV using a smartphone, that can be a way to broach the topic, for example.

Foster an open and honest environment. Let your child or teen know you're there to talk with them about technology use without passing judgement -- model good behavior yourself by limiting your own screen time while you're with your kids. 

How to talk to kids about gambling

Have a conversation with your child, so they understand what gambling is, how to identify risky behaviors, and how to avoid addictive behaviors. Here's how to approach discussing gambling with children:

• Explain that gambling is illegal: Explain what gambling is and the ways it might appear without being in a traditional casino-like form. Kids who are under the age of 18 can't gamble in any form, including online.

•  Tell kids not to do anything online they wouldn't want a parent to see: Explain how parental controls and monitoring will work for your family. Be transparent about what information of your child's you'll be looking at.

•  Discuss screen time: Go over screen time reports with your child. Ask them how they feel when they're using a screen and when they're not. Identify addiction warning signs.

•  Ask about peer groups: Ask your child if they identify gambling behaviors among classmates and friends. Ask them how they handle those situations and explore ways to approach them.

When gambling is technically legal

Remember that while some American legislators are trying to outlaw them, some online games still have gambling-like features. Games like Candy Crush Saga have loot boxes that have gambling elements but are legal because of how they're structured. Trading in skins for gambling currency is also technically legal but is a form of childhood gambling.

Teens and kids also might get involved in fantasy sports leagues, which CNN reports aren't considered gambling because they're a game of skill rather than chance.

Placing a bet among friends, like what your child could do while playing an online game in real-time, is also another gambling risk.

When gambling is not legal

Online gambling on United States-based websites is illegal. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, web users are not allowed to:

• Place cyber bets on sporting events or in virtual card games

• Transfer money electronically for gambling

• Place bets in offshore online casinos

In all states in the U.S., the absolute minimum age someone can legally gamble is 18. The oldest age you have to be to gamble in the U.S. legally is 21 years old.

Where to find more information

If you have questions about gambling in your state, look on your state government's website or contact your state legislators. FindLaw is another good resource to see gambling laws by state. You can also check the USA.gov site to see the latest gambling news.

How to spot a gambling addiction

Watch out for these gambling addiction warning signs. Try to identify them early to mitigate the risks.

• Your child spends most of their free time on online gaming sites.

•  Your child neglects relationships with family members and friends in order to spend time on gaming sites.

•  Your child's gaming site usage is noticeable to others, such as a sibling who brings it up to you.

•  Your child has stolen money from you to spend on online gaming sites or on mystery boxes.

•  Your child has sold their belongings or engaged in destructive behavior to get money to pay for gambling behaviors.

•  Your child has expressed frustration with a game or mystery box yet spent more money to redeem their loss.

•  You've restricted online time for your child or teen's gaming usage, and they've been angry with you for doing so.

In cases where a gambling addiction is taking place, you may consider rehabilitation and/or counseling for your child to overcome their addiction. Gambling behaviors at a young age may carry on into adulthood. Taking care of the problem earlier can prevent unwanted behaviors later on in life.

In Summary: How to protect your child

Technology is addictive for many people, especially children. A 2019 report by Common Sense found in the U.S., 8 to 12-year-olds spends an average of 4 hours and 44 minutes on entertainment screen media every day, while teens use screens for an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes for non-homework related tasks. If your child is like most, they regularly use their smartphone, tablet, computer, and other screen devices. That potentially exposes them to gambling in many forms.

To prevent your child or teen from gambling illegally or from participating in legal games with addictive gambling elements like loot boxes, use parental controls to set limits on screen usage. Have honest and open conversations with your children about what gambling looks like and why it can be dangerously addictive, and check in regularly with your kids about how they're using your devices so they can healthily use them.

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