Childhood gambling experiences and adult problem gambling

June 7, 2024
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Many countries are now increasing regulation of the gambling industry. A cornerstone of these regulatory efforts is the protection of children. Gambling is generally viewed as an age-inappropriate activity for children and there is an assumption that exposure to gambling as a child increases the risk of problem gambling (PG) in later in life. PG is when a person’s gambling is disruptive and damaging to their lives, with negative repercussions on their finances, wellbeing and social circles.

Such regulation may reduce the profitability of a sector that generates considerable revenue and employment. It is therefore important that regulation is grounded in evidence from high-quality research on the impact of exposing children to gambling. In this study we test if adults who were more exposed to gambling as children are more likely to have PG. We do this using an online survey with a nationally representative sample of 1,663 adults in Ireland. The survey measured participants’ PG and asked them if they had gambled before the age of 18, how much their parents gambled while they were growing up, and what was their parents’ general attitude towards gambling.

Almost two-in-three adults (64%) report having gambled before turning 18. Playing slot machines was the most common form of gambling for money as a child (33%). This was followed by scratch cards (31%), horse or dog betting (27%), gambling amongst friends (23%), bingo (20%), and lotteries (20%). We find some differences between age cohorts: scratch cards, sports betting and loot boxes in video games were more prevalent forms of childhood gambling among the under 40s, while slots were more prevalent for those aged 40 plus.

Regarding our primary research question, we find strong links between childhood experiences of gambling and PG in adulthood. Those who gambled before the age of 18 are almost twice as likely to have PG, as are those who had a parent who gambled with high intensity during the person’s childhood. Those whose parents had a more positive attitude towards gambling are also at an increased risk of having PG.

Having had one parent who gambled is linked to an increased chance of PG of about a third, relative to having no parent who gambled. This link is much stronger among those aged 40 or more, compared to the under 40s. Having had two parents who gambled is not linked to an increased chance of PG in the full sample, but is among the 40 plus age group. This weakening of the link between family-related factors and PG in the younger cohort may indicate changes to the sources of exposure to gambling among younger cohorts. Given the expansion of the gambling industry and growth of online gambling and advertising in particular, under 40s have been exposed to a much greater level of gambling accessibility and marketing during childhood than the 40 plus age group. The upshot may be that while parental gambling behaviour was previously a crucial factor in determining if a child will develop PG in adulthood, other factors have become more important.

Our study has implications for policy. The findings add to the weight of evidence for a link between childhood experiences of gambling and PG in adulthood. This in turn supports regulatory measures to minimise the exposure of children to gambling in order to reduce their risk of developing PG. These may include bans on children gambling or even entering a gambling premises, website or app. Strict, immediate age-verification safeguards may be warranted for digital gambling platforms. Assuming that advertising is at least to some degree effective, our findings also imply that the future level of PG may be reduced by minimising the exposure of children to gambling marketing, using measures such as a watershed ban on TV advertising, the prohibition of gambling advertisements that may be particularly attractive to children, and restrictions on sponsorship of events or clubs where children are involved. Additionally, measures that protect parents from PG may indirectly help to reduce the risk of their children developing PG, given the links we find between parental gambling and later-life PG. One needs to bear in mind, however, that the influence of parents on PG risk appears to be weakening in younger age cohorts. This suggests that a focus on regulations that reduce the extra-familial exposure of children to gambling, such as regulation on accessibility and marketing, may be taking on greater importance.

The growing importance of extra-familial factors also has implications for PG treatment. It may mean that the profile of those seeking treatment is changing, with more people with no family history of gambling or PG presenting for treatment. Given this, future research on the changing profiles of PG treatment patients is warranted.