Aug 18, 2009
GAMBLING AND YOUTH
Most problem gamblers get hooked at early age
Harder to spot tech-savvy youth enticed by ease of placing bets via cellphone
By Teh Joo Lin & Ang Yiying
WHEN he was seven, he made a bet with his neighbour on the outcome of a football match, hoping to win his friend’s toy robot – and he did.
But one seemingly innocuous wager was the seed of a lifelong gambling addiction that saw him losing all he had earned 28 years later – a scholarship and a lofty position in the government sector. Saddled with a $600,000 debt, the 37-year-old committed criminal breach of trust, landing himself in jail for four months last year.
Now a recovering addict, the bankrupt said: ‘Kids gamble because it solves their immediate needs. It becomes a quick-fix solution.’
The danger of gambling among youth was the focus of the two-day Singapore Problem Gambling Conference, which ends today at the Orchard Hotel.
With the impending launch of the two integrated resorts next year, at least one counsellor has expressed concern that young people will be enticed by the glitz and glamour associated with casinos.
Mr Charles Lee, a senior counsellor at the Tanjong Pagar Family Service Centre, said before the conference’s opening: ‘I don’t know if it’s real, but my fear is that, with the IRs opening, will teens now…start to prepare themselves for when they are 21, to go into the casino to become experts in table games and card games?’
Overseas, casino visits have gained the reputation as ‘the new rite of passage’, said Canadian expert Jeffrey Derevensky. ‘It’s glamorous, it’s exciting. It has all the elements of why people would want to go into a casino and once you are there, you’d want to gamble,’ said the youth gambling expert from Canada’s McGill University.
While it is hard to pinpoint the prevalence of youth gambling here, studies have shown that most problem gamblers began their fixation in their teens.
This was shown in a Ministry of Community Development, Youth & Sports survey last year on Singaporeans aged 18 and above, which found that three out of four gamblers picked up the habit when they were 24 or younger.
Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children’s Society, said she has seen more cases linked to gambling cropping up in the course of her work. Also, some of the children the society has helped for problem gambling are only in primary school, she added.
Dr Thomas Lee, an associate consultant psychiatrist with the National Addictions Management Service, said it was also common to see families keep the problem under wraps.
While parents typically seek help only after giving their children repeated chances, it may be too late by then, say counsellors. Gambling can have wide-reaching consequences beyond just financial ruin. Studies and careers are derailed and family relationships soured.
Mr Charles Lee cited the case of a 21-year-old student who sought help only when his school forced him to do so. By then, the youth – who started betting on soccer matches online and through bookies when he was 16 – had already racked up $700,000 in losses. His mother, who had been covering up for him, had to sell off the family condominium.
Complicating the issue is how some forms of gambling – like lottery and mahjong – are socially acceptable in many families. Mr Mani Joseph of the Asian Women’s Welfare Association Family Service Centre said: ‘In a typical family, the exposure is already there.’
Further enticing today’s tech-savvy youth is the accessibility of gambling – even from their mobile phones.
This means youth gambling can be hard to spot, but experts say the signs to watch out for include dipping grades, mood swings and social withdrawal. The youngster may also appear overly invested in the outcome of a sports game.
Urging problem gamblers to seek help, the recovering addict said: ‘Stopping gambling is just the beginning of a painful journey. Don’t wait until you lose everything.’