Dealing in young addicts

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Eliana Schneider

When Suzi S. plopped down $300 and lost it in a few hours playing black jack, she was relieved.

“It meant I wouldn’t spend any more money,” she says.

Instead, the petite blonde 21-year-old ordered a rum and Coke at the casino bar, and watched while her friends played the nickel slot machines until 4 a.m.

“They were having a great time with nickels, and I was down and out with $300,” she says. But Suzi, a fourth-year university student who didn’t want her last name used, is used to losing. She’s been gambling since she was 16, and she can’t stop. “First it was lottery cards, then bingo, now it’s full-scale casinos,” she says. She estimates that she has spend thousands of dollars gambling, and has probably lost as much.

And she’s not alone.

“Teenagers and young adults gamble at a rate three to four times higher than that of adults,” says Jane Scott, director of health and promotions at the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling (CFCG) in Toronto.

For today’s teenagers and young adults (18-25), gambling is as easy as clicking on the Internet to bet on a basketball game. Casinos have popped up in Ontario and bingo parlours are packed with college kids on weekends in a recent boom in legal gambling. Starting out so young, teens face a slew of financial and emotional consequences that can follow them through university and into adulthood. Problem gambling affects school performance, disrupts relationships, and ken result in financial debt and even crime.

While many teens just drop a few bucks on weekends for entertainment, others can’t stop gambling when they want to. Jeffrey Derevensky, a child psychologist and leading researcher on teen gambling at McGill University published studies that report a rising rate of adolescent gamblers (both legal and illegal) in Canada, with 4-8 per cent of adolescents (12-19) experiencing a serious gambling program. In a Montreal Gazette article last November, Derevensky reported that males gamble more, but females are catching up.

When gambling become problematic or addictive (excessive and out of control), it’s a risky business, says Scott. People who start gambling so young are at high risk to continue gambling for the rest of their lives, she says.

“The teen years are the incubation period for later problems and compulsive gambling,” reports CFCG executive director Jon Kelly in the CFCG’s winter newsletter, Newslink.

Why are young people gambling at such a high rate?

“For some kids, gambling is better than sex, better than cocaine,” says Scott. “It’s a high, it’s pleasurable. It’s an emotional response.”

Some researchers are looking into the possibility that gambling addiction stems from a deficiency of pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain, says Scott. In such cases, people need the excitement of gambling to make them feel normal and balanced.

Youth are even more susceptible to gambling than adults are, since they are still forging their identities and are vulnerable to influence, says John Macdonald, an addiction therapist specializing in youth with the Problem Gambling Service of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “They tend to be more focused on the present, without considering the consequences of their actions. Youth in general ten to have this feeling of omnipotence,” that no harm can come to them, he says.

Suzi didn’t think she’d ever become a compulsive gambler when she bought her first scratch-and-win card over five years ago. “All my friends were buying them, so I though ti would be fun,” she said. Although the legal age for gambling in Ontario is 19, no one asked her for ID. Soon it became a habit. Each afternoon on her way home from school, Suzi used her allowance and babysitting money to buy lottery cards at convenience stores or inside the bus station. When her friends began teasing her about “the stop on the way home,” she lied and said she was just buying treats for her younger sister. Since her mother played bingo often, Suzi didn’t think losing money was a big deal.

There is a definite connection between parents and kids who gamble, says Macdonald. The kids don’t learn to value money and instead grow up watching their parents take shortcuts. There is also a definite connection between gambling and alcohol and drug abuse in young adults, he says.

However, gambling gets the least attention and awareness of the three problems.

Suzi says she didn’t even know buying lottery tickets was considered gambling. The first signs that she had a problem came when she began applying for university and realized she didn’t have enough money to cover tuition. Unaware of her gambling, Suzi’s parents offered to pay for university if she got a part-time job. “The deal was sweet,” says Suzi. “I worked at an art gallery so I had gambling money, and all my other needs were met by my parents.”

Macdonald says many young people aren’t afraid to gamble because they know their parents are there to back them up. “Since their basic needs are covered by their parents, the consequences of losing money aren’t as risky as they are for adults.”

Teenagers use up allowances, savings accounts, lunch money and gifts to pay for gambling. Scoot knew a teenage client who was so desperate for gambling money that he sold his TV and VCR. “He told his parents he lent it to a friend. They thought that was sweet,” says Scott. Sometimes young people will even resort to stealing and credit card fraud to get money, she says. Macdonald had a client who “blew all his OSAP loans” gambling, and had to drop out of university.

Jeremy W., a 22-year-old York University student who didn’t want his full name used, says he is lucky he didn’t need OSAP. “I might have spent it all. I’ll never know.” That’s because Jeremy drops 25 to 100 dollars a week on Internet gambling.

It was as simple as entering the search words “Sports betting” on the Yahoo search engine, he says. Then hundreds of gaming websites came up, and Jeremy signed up for Intertops, a sports betting site. He uses his credit card to bet on basketball and hockey games and spends hours researching his bets to find the best odds. “I skip a lot of my school work because I’m always looking up bets on the Internet.”

Most of Jeremy’s betting money comes from his summer jobs and part-time job as a security guard. Jeremy estimates that he lost hundreds of dollars in the last few months, a lot of it on the Superbowl.

“I’m always trying to get out of the hole,” he says. “I wasn’t to get back that excited feeling of winning.”

Although Suzi used to feel good when she bought lottery tickets, she doesn’t enjoy it anymore. She just gambles to make back the money she has lost. Although she has never sought professional help, Suzi did confide in her parents last year. They were understanding and are looking for ways to help her.

Generally, gambling teens and young adults don’t come out to support groups, says Macdonald. There is a lack of education and treatment for young gamblers because they don’t want professional help. Either they don’t want to acknowledge they have a real problem, or they would rather talk to their peers about it, he says. Aside from this, many teens gamble illegally and are scared to come forward. “They don’t want to get caught,” he said.

Shawn Fisher, the manager of Mayfair Bingo in Toronto, says that once or twice a month he kicks out under-age players. At least 25 per cent of the weekend players are teenagers and university students, he says, and many keep coming back over and over again. There weren’t that many young players six years ago, when he began managing the parlours, says Fisher. “Bingo is very habit-forming. After two sessions, you get hooked.”

On a Saturday night in March, Jeremy is at Mayfair. Wearing a baseball hat and hockey jersey, he buys a double-strip bingo card for $16 dollars and spends three hours dabbing at the numbers. Before each number is called out, he shakes his knee and tightens his jaw. “It’s stressful,” he says. “I just want to win.”

For Suzi, who struggles each weekend to keep her art gallery pay in her pockets and out of casinos, it’s just as stressful. “I hate gambling. No one understands that it’s really a legitimate problem. I can’t just stop like this.” She snaps her fingers to demonstrate.

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