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As reported by The Stamford Advocate, June 10, 2005.

Teens + Gambling = Trouble

By Beth Levine

"Around two years ago, I saw the poker games on TV, and thought it looked like fun. I started playing with my brother and a neighbor for low stakes. Then games started getting bigger with more people and more money. It started growing."

- Jason Zuckerbrod, 18, a senior at Staples High School, Westport

That was just the beginning. From there, Zuckerbrod started gambling on the Internet (Texas Hold 'Em poker was his favorite). He used money earned from caddying, and although he claims he never lost or won significant amounts, he admits that at the height of his interest, he was gambling online or with friends daily.

His parents knew about the poker games with friends but not about gambling online. When they found out, they forbid him to continue the online games. The poker games at friends' houses continue.

Zuckerbrod doesn't see gambling as a big problem. "It's a social event," he says, ignoring the fact that the online gambling is solitary. "Compared to what kids could be doing, it's relatively safe."

That's the blasť attitude teen advocates are trying to combat. "For many, gambling can grow from an occasional social activity to a compulsion. Kids get obsessed and it can become a lifelong problem. It's an addictive behavior," says Bob Vietro, clinical director of Positive Directions: The Center for Prevention and Recovery in Westport and facilitator of the Center's The Bettor Choice Program. Online betting, especially, can become addictive because the gambler loses track of time, and if using a credit card, does not see hard cash fleeing.

Several research studies have shown that 4 percent to 7 percent of teens have gambling problems. According to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, the rate of problem gambling among high school students is twice that of adults. (Right now, it's mostly teen boys who gamble, but girls are starting to get in on the act.)

"Most adolescents don't recognize that they have a problem. Teens will move in and out of a gambling problem but during that transient phase, a lot of bad things can happen," says Jeremiah Weinstock, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow, department of psychiatry, University of Connecticut Health Center School of Medicine. Bad things such as:

  • Huge debts, which may cause the teen to steal from others or sell his own things.
  • Depression.
  • Disruption of relationships with friends and family.
  • Involvement with bookies, who may be connected with organized crime.

Teen gambling is on the rise across the country, due to a couple of factors. One is the glitzy, celebrity-filled, high-stakes poker games that fill the cable TV channels. The other is the prevailing cultural attitude that says gambling is fun, glamorous and possibly the source of vast wealth. Casinos are springing up all over the landscape. Dependent on the huge revenue that lotteries and other gaming activities provide, state governments widely promote participation. No wonder. According to Connecticut's Division of Special Revenue, approximately $700 million annually from casinos, lotteries and other gaming activities is deposited into the General Fund. According to a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Council, people who live within 50 miles of a casino are at double the risk for problem or pathological gambling.

Unfortunately, many parents view games as friendly, social events. They know where their kids are and assume their child won't develop a problem. In fact, at a recent forum that Positive Directions held on the topic of teen gambling, there were more media in the audience than parents. "But it can take years before you realize that gambling is a problem for your child. Do you want to take the chance?" asks Tamara L. Petro, assistant director of CCPG. Research from the National Council on Problem Gambling says that many adults in treatment for gambling problems started gambling as youths -- some as young as 8.

If parents are going to allow gambling, what are the signs that their teen has developed a gambling addiction? The social gambler goes with a set amount of money and just wants to have fun. A pathological gambler is addicted to the rush he gets while gambling, that win or lose, he will do anything to stay in the game.

According to the CCPG, red flags are:

  • Borrows from family and friends and doesn't repay.
  • Sells personal belongings.
  • Lies and steals.
  • Has unexplained debts or large amounts of cash.
  • Receives many phone calls from strangers.
  • Makes many calls to "900" gambling numbers.
  • Has unexplained absences from school, work or home.
  • Seems moody, distracted, anxious or depressed.
  • Is overly concerned with sports scores.
  • Has withdrawn from relationships, social groups or activities.

As for those friendly poker games, parents should step in if they see that the pot is getting too big or the kids are starting to write IOUs to each other or to parents.

"People see problem gamblers as having character flaws. They wonder why the gambler just doesn't stop. But it might be out of his control to stop. Pathological gambling is diagnosed as a mental disorder," says Petro. Fortunately, a problem gambler can be helped with therapy, behavior modification and sometimes medication.

The best way to prevent teen gambling addiction is not to allow it to start. As the CCPG notes, treatment is available but prevention is the first step. "Parents need to set limits, be clear about expectations and then follow up with their teen," says Weinstock.