David, now 21, is from the northwest corner of England. “I sat in, by myself, on New Year’s Eve when I was 20 years old,” he adds. “Everyone else went out partying, but I stayed home and slept the whole night, feeling like shite because I’d just had my biggest loss to date: around $4,000 in one night,” the speaker says. “I felt shy because I’d just suffered my worst loss to date.”
When it comes to gambling, there are very few certainties, but one of them is that every generation has a problem. When you visit a location frequented by addicts, such as a betting window or a blackjack table, you will most likely notice adults of various ages looking decrepit and aged. Today’s gamblers differ from previous generations in that they develop a gambling addiction at a younger age and in a more severe form. They are losing thousands of dollars before graduating from high school, and tens of thousands by the time they reach adulthood.
Despite the fact that there are approximately 156,000 addicts aged 16 to 24 in the UK and 25,000 addicts under the age of 16, their story is rarely told. While stories about new drugs are written on a daily basis, many young addicts have the impression that their addiction has been dismissed, lumped in with less fashionable habits like alcoholism. This contrasts with the fact that stories about old drugs are written on a daily basis.
This lack of interest is reflected in a chronic lack of services, with the NHS providing only one specialist clinic throughout the UK to treat gambling addiction, and many other services relying heavily on donations from the betting industry itself: a pitiful £8 million per year from £14 billion in revenue. A chronic lack of services reflects this disinterest.
All of this makes life as a young addict extremely isolating, driving many of them to the darkest corners of the internet: message boards were teeming with terrified, and occasionally suicidal, 14 to 24-year-olds pouring their hearts out to one another. “College student who has to stop gambling,” “21 years old,” and “£1,000 to my name.” It’s past time to give up,” and “19 years old and still stupid.”
In 2018, the risks associated with gambling for young people emerge through both traditional and innovative channels. For example, far from the threadbare carpets of your neighborhood Ladbrokes or the watered-down Malibu-and-Cokes of central London’s casinos, the same rough beast slinks toward teenagers in the form of video game “skins.” These “skins” are decorative digital wraps for in-game weapons and equipment. The more rare ones can cost hundreds of pounds, but they’ve come to represent a certain level of status among players in that game’s community. Some of these items are extremely cheap, while others are extremely expensive. These “skins” are the items used as prizes for young players who try to win money through gambling.
Teens are losing thousands of dollars gambling on virtual guns, gloves, and knives on websites that frequently lack age verification, are sometimes rigged, and are legally unrelated to the video games they’re based on, such as Counter-Strike and RuneScape. This is due to the fact that YouTubers are providing free bets to millions of subscribers.
David tells me that he started gambling with those games when he was about 15 years old. David has been sober since New Year’s Eve evening, but he is still devoting nearly 80 percent of his salary to the repayment of a payday loan. “The appeal, I believe, is the same as that of traditional gambling: win money and brag to your friends about how wealthy you have become. The terrifying part is that those under the age of 18 are permitted to participate.
The skin gambling industry is already worth $5 billion per year, but governments have only recently begun to address the issue. Despite the fact that the problem has been around for a long time. Denmark banned access to specific skin gambling sites in February, and the UK Gambling Commission stated in December that it will take criminal action wherever possible, but that it can’t do much without the help of parents and game developers. This follows the UK’s similarly lax approach to “loot boxes,” a slightly less exploitative way of betting on games like FIFA. Despite the fact that Belgium and the Netherlands banned “loot boxes” in April on the grounds that they constitute gambling, the Gambling Commission says they are not gambling. This is similar to betting on football games.
Gambling addiction, also known as problem gambling, is defined by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as betting that “disrupts or impairs personal, familial, or recreational endeavors.” Teenagers, who are the target audience for these bets, are extremely vulnerable, with poor impulse control, a poor understanding of consequences, and a lot of free time; all of these factors contribute to gambling addiction. Of course, not everyone who bets on skins is a problem gambler; however, these bets are aimed at teenagers.
David adds that boredom and feelings of isolation were among his primary triggers. “There’s a sense of nothingness, and I’m not sure I’m even alive… Gambling causes adrenaline surges, which mask the fact that you’ve just lost dozens of pounds in an hour and a half or so. However, the truth will eventually dawn on you, and you’ll realize how much weight you’ve lost. The thought of consequences will not enter your mind until you have exhausted all other options.
Compulsive gamblers, regardless of age, have a strong desire to amass a large sum of money. With each significant victory, the possibility of erasing not only an unwanted life, but also all of the agony and losses that have accrued over the preceding weeks, months, or years, increases. This holds true even if the life in question was not planned. However, as any person who has successfully recovered from addiction will attest, all of the money is ultimately wasted.
Joe, 26, from the north-east of England, claims that he has used payday loans, store credit cards, and overdrafts to fund his gambling. “I tried everything to get my hands on whatever it was, but the banks didn’t even question it. When I was 19 or 20, I was gambling away thousands of dollars every month despite earning only $1,100 from my job. It lasted nearly six years, and even though I knew I should stop doing it, by the end, I had accumulated so much debt that the only way out seemed to be to earn it back.
Joe is recovering as well, but he is concerned that his significant financial setbacks will prevent him and his fiancé from ever purchasing a home: “I want to move on with my life, but that debt hangs over me like a ball and chain,” she explained. “It’s stifling me.”
For the majority of people, the initial spark is a significant win, which, when combined with the previously described reasons and others, such as genetics, can lead to addiction. The process then becomes everything: the emptying, obliterating nothingness that one enters when on a streak (hot or cold), which eventually leads to losing becoming the aim, which is the only remaining absolution. “Only in losing could I discover a story that made sense,” Jay Caspian Kang wrote about his poker addiction in a 2010 article that is widely regarded as one of the most honest pieces ever written on the subject. Regardless, “the bottom” isn’t always “the bottom.” People rarely remember important lessons. Joe claims that “I tried to leave several times but always ended up in the same situation: a few days into the month with no money.”
You feel like a complete failure, as if you’ve disappointed everyone in some way yet again. I’d sit down and try to figure out how I was going to get through the month, then freak out, cry, and try to reassure myself that everything would be fine.
If your awareness of the risks associated with gambling is low when you are a minor, it is unlikely that it will improve dramatically once you reach the age of 18. When one moves from card games and craps to sports betting and slot machines, the number of ways in which one can destroy themselves significantly increases.
If there is one thing that all members of this new generation of gamblers have in common, it is that, unlike their fathers and grandfathers, they rarely enter betting shops. Peer pressure, toxic masculinity, and fantasies of becoming the next Dan Bilzerian are all permitted in casinos, but the overwhelming majority of them, according to the forums and people I’ve spoken with, prefer the digital shroud of apps instead. They also prefer the glitz and glam of casinos.
The most recent gambling controversy in Britain involves fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) and their maximum stake, which was recently reduced by the government from £100 to £2, with effect in late 2019. This controversy perplexes many young addicts, who see FOBTs as high-street versions of the same software that has been draining them of will, money, and life online and in casinos, rather than as uniquely scandalous (though their damage is significant).
Gambling is socially acceptable, but there is a scarcity of information about it, which is cause for concern — at least for those attempting to emerge from the shadows. Betting companies promote themselves virtually unchecked in the United Kingdom, appearing in young people’s social media feeds, on podcasts they listen to, such as James Richardson’s Football Show, on YouTube channels they watch, such as ArsenalFanTV and True Geordie, and in one out of every five advertisements shown during football games. Children are constantly reminded not to smoke, drink excessively, or engage in unprotected sexual activity, but they are rarely told not to gamble.
“I get depressed when I check my bank balance and realize I don’t have much money left in my account. When I do win, I usually keep gambling the next day and the next, even after I’ve spent all of my money, until I finally give up. At my worst, I’ve lost over $1,300 in a single day. — James, a 23-year-old from Newcastle upon Tyne.
The struggles that adolescent addicts face on message boards like Reddit’s r/problemgambling are heartbreaking, but at least these people are aware that they have a problem. Thousands of people are able to convince themselves that their loved ones’ reactions are exaggerated, and that the destruction they cause, such as the theft and substance abuse addicts sometimes succumb to, is insignificant in comparison to the success that will inevitably come their way.
James, who is from Newcastle upon Tyne, is well aware of the drinking that can occur as a result of gaming. He is still over 10,000 pounds in debt a month after his most recent relapse. “When I bet,” he says, “I tend to abandon all inhibitions,” and I believe him. “Drinking seems to come naturally to me with it. However, because gambling makes me so happy, I don’t feel the effects of the alcohol, which means I drink myself into a coma. I sometimes start gambling as soon as I get home from work at 5:30 p.m., and I drink two to three pints an hour until 8:00 a.m.
Gambling has the same serious consequences for students at British universities. Many students gamble to cover their living expenses, resulting in the loss of loans and the absence of one out of every eight students. Approximately 100,000 students have some form of gaming debt. There are several reasons for this, one of which is the marketing strategies employed by casinos and bingo establishments. These strategies include providing low-cost drinks, participating in poker leagues, distributing leaflets to housing, and setting up stalls at freshers’ fairs.
Labour’s decision to de-regulate gambling in 2005 is partly to blame for the industry’s strong hold on millennials. Profits have roughly tripled since then, as has the amount of tax paid, which is now approximately £2.7 billion per year. The agreement at the time stipulated that the industry would donate 0.1 percent of its earnings to recovery, but it has consistently fallen short, paying only £8 million in 2016, when it should have paid £13.8 million. It’s also worth noting that between January 2016 and September 2017, Members of Parliament received a total of 187 gifts, with betting companies accounting for more than a third of those.
Despite a lack of institutional resources, several services are still available to assist young addicts. The GamCare helpline; Gamblers Anonymous; private rehabs; charities like Aquarius and StepChange, which manage out-of-control debt; podcasts like Gambling Still Sucks; and, of course, boards like r/problemgambling, where the sense of community is strong, and where someone who has always lost more than you is there to tell you that recovery, and that you can do it, is possible.
Giving someone you trust control of your finances, downloading anti-gambling software on your mobile device and computer, and putting your name on a “Self-Exclusion” list are all strategies that many people find useful. These are databases that casinos and bookmakers have access to, and they effectively keep you out of their establishments.
However, the alarming number of young people in the UK who commit suicide as a result of gambling is conclusive evidence that additional measures are required. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), one out of every five problem gamblers attempts suicide, which is roughly twice the rate of other addictions. Meanwhile, an Australian hospital study discovered that gambling is involved in 17% of all emergency room admissions for suicide.
Consider the case of Joshua Jones, a 23-year-old accountant who committed suicide by jumping from a London building in 2015. Joshua Jones jumped out of “shame” over his gambling addiction, according to his father. Joshua began taking out payday loans at extremely high interest rates after he had completely exhausted the funds from his student loan while still in school. There was also Jack Ritchie, who was twenty-four years old and had committed suicide the previous November in Sheffield. Jack’s parents have now established a charity called You Don’t Know Jack to raise awareness about the destructive nature of gambling.
There is no denying that the life of a young addict is fraught with anxiety, and it is easy to imagine how a severe mental illness could manifest itself while attempting to maintain such a way of life. Jake, 23, from Birmingham, who had his most recent relapse a month ago and has already lost more than £50,000 in his short life, describes a typical day as follows: “The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is worry about money.” On the way to work, I check my bank balances and make payments on my credit cards and loans, and then all I can think about is how I could improve my employment prospects if I didn’t have so much unpaid debt hanging over my head. When I’m at home, I can’t sleep because I’m so anxious; on average, I get three hours of sleep per night.”
Joe, who is from the northeast, describes a similar scenario: “I used to lie in bed at night weeping myself to sleep because I was so afraid of what could happen.” There didn’t appear to be any way out, and gambling carries a significant amount of social shame, so you fear being chastised for it more than for many other addictions. After that, he tells me that he considered ending his life by suicide, but ultimately decided that kicking his addiction was more important.
By lowering the maximum bet that can be placed on FOBTs, the government has demonstrated that it is not completely deaf to the issue of compulsive gambling. However, politicians’ general antipathy toward business, combined with their failure to provide adequate funds for the industry’s recovery, is not only complicating matters for this generation, but also condemning future generations to the worst-case scenarios.
Even though the casino almost always wins, why is it that the most helpless members of society end up losing their money, future opportunities, and even their lives as a result?