Free online casino games may turn teens into gambling addicts, study warns

TORONTO — Keep your children away from online casino games if you want to lower their risk of developing an addiction to gambling, a new study warns.

There are thousands of free, casino-style games waiting to be downloaded or played on websites. Researchers with the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found a link between young people playing these games and developing gambling addictions later in life. Even games that aren’t overtly trying to mimic casino games like slots or poker can still encourage and cultivate an affinity for placing bets and learning how casino games work at all, the authors say.

Brick-and-mortar casinos and legal gambling websites are of course closed to teenagers in the U.S. and Canada, but free online casino games are open to everyone with an Internet connection. Experts refer to these as “social casino games,” with many designed to let people try common casino table games, slots, and card games like poker without betting actual money.

The games still require players to place bets and win or lose, but players win and lose points or prizes within the game itself only. Since these games don’t involve money changing hands, they aren’t legally classified as gambling and are unregulated. Researchers say many of these games are designed to let participants win more frequently than they would in real life, which could lead a vulnerable teen to believe they’re better gamblers than they really are.

“While it’s not clear whether young people begin in social casino games and move to gambling for money, or if adolescents who are gambling for money also seek out these free games, there is evidence that social casino gaming may build excitement for gambling and encourage the transition into monetary gambling,” says senior author Dr. Tara Elton-Marshall, a scientist in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, in a media release.

For the study, the researchers used data from surveys of 10,035 students in grades 9 through 12 in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland. The survey asked participants specifically about three different free online casino games: Internet poker, Internet slots, and social casino games on Facebook. They found that 12% of teens said they had played these games at least once in the last three months.

What’s more, adolescents who take part in these games were much more likely to gamble with real cash, either online or in real life. The authors say that between 37 and 50 percent of teens surveyed who gambled with real money and played social casino games met the criteria for low to moderate or high problem gambling. Interestingly, only 10 percent of teens who said they gambled with real money — but not in social casino games — met such criteria.

Gender also played a role: boys were much more likely than girls to play Internet poker, but only slightly more likely to try online slots or social casino games on Facebook.

Because data for the study was taken from the 2012-13 Youth Gambling Survey in Canada, the authors believe numbers may even be far higher today than what they calculated.

“With the growing number of social casino games over the past five years, and high levels of screen time among young people, we believe our findings may under-represent social casino gaming by adolescents today,” says lead author Dr. Livia Veselka, a postdoctoral research fellow at CAMH.

The study was published in the journal BMC Public Health.

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