Her son's poker win has alerted ROMA FELSTEIN to a potentially serious problem
Last week my 15-year-old son came home and told me he had won Pounds 50 in a poker game with friends. "That's five times my pocket money," he said, "and eight times more than I would get paid for a paper round."
My first instinct was to be happy for him. Perhaps even a little proud. But the more I thought about it I wondered whether I should share in his happiness or be deeply worried.
A recent BMA report, Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS, calls for gambling to be a recognised addiction requiring treatment on the NHS. In particular, it highlights concerns about adolescent problem gamblers and wants slot-machine gambling prohibited for anyone under 18. The UK is the only Western country that allows children of any age to gamble.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, is a contributor to the BMA report and author of two books on adolescent gambling.
He is passionate about the need for it to be taken seriously.
"Two thirds of 11 to 18-year-olds will have gambled in the past 12 months," he says, "which is almost four times as many as adult gamblers, and the majority of these adolescents will have gambled on slot machines. Even though the Gambling Act says that the vulnerable should be protected, and in particular minors, there is still no restriction to young people using slot machines.
"Under current legislation fruit machines still have the label of 'amusement' and while it might seem harmless fun it could be the first step into something much more serious. I have seen children as young as 3 being lifted on to boxes so they can reach the handles on the machines.
"I don't see any real difference between a 10p and a Pounds 5 jackpot -it is still gambling and can lead to addiction," he says. So how worried should I be about my son's poker antics? "You just need to talk to him rationally and explain that winning is not a normal occurrence," explains Griffiths. "It is important to recognise that while gambling can be just as big a problem as drug and alcohol addiction, it can be a lot harder to detect a gambling addict as there are no physical signs, unlike with drugs or alcohol." A feeling endorsed by The Times parenting expert and psychologist, Dr Tanya Byron, who says that parents have a responsibility to be cautious and monitor their children's behaviour. "We need to talk to them over Sunday lunch, and equip them so they can understand how addiction works. It isn't just about what they are doing but also about how they feel when they are doing it.
"The act of gambling makes the body release dopamine, and endorphins flood in and make them feel good, and this feeling leads to the cycle of compulsive and uncontrollable behaviour...It is easier to log on to the web than to score drugs and I have worked with a 14-year-old who used to get up in the night when his parents were asleep, just to get his daily fix," she explains.
With that in mind I directed my son to an internet gamblers' forum. It makes for sober reading. One 19-year-old who had been gambling for three years wrote: "The excitement I get from it is unhealthy and sometimes I will be talking to friends and just thinking about gambling, ignoring what they say. I have upset, stolen and lied to my friends and family, and gambling and debt is all I can think about."
My son looked sheepish and confided a recent experience he had with a friend who owed him Pounds 50..."We were playing pool for Pounds 5 a game and he lost, and I wanted to stop but he insisted on carrying on so he could win back his money. He kept losing but wouldn't stop and he got very angry. When it got to Pounds 50 I had to walk away," he said, admitting that it was scary to see his friend get so worked up.
I feel calmer now. As Dr Griffiths said, problems are likely to be avoided when the young gambler keeps control of the situation and ensures that his gambling remains a social activity. My son says that playing poker is more about being with friends than about winning. I hope it stays that way.
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