Cody knew his uncle liked to gamble. Sometimes he’d go to the horse races near their home after work or down to the casinos for the weekend. It seemed exciting to Cody, and it looked like an easy way to make some money. So when Cody’s friend told him about a website where you could win money playing poker, Cody checked it out. It was lots of fun. The only problem was that you could lose money, too, and Cody did.
Gambling can seem fascinating, and it’s normal to wonder about it. Is it really a quick, easy way to make money? Or is that too good to be true?
As we all know from experience, not everything we come across in life turns out to be a good idea. So what’s the story with gambling?
What Is Gambling?
Gambling means taking part in any activity or game where you risk money or a valuable object (like an iPod or video game) in order to win money or other stuff.
Gambling is mostly about chance, although some games can involve skill too. Some gambling (like lotteries, slot machines, or bingo) depends on luck, and no amount of knowledge or practice can help a person win. Other games — like pool or darts, for example — require skill. So knowing how to play (and practicing) can influence the results.
Card games (poker, for example) are mostly chance, but they do have some skill elements. The skill in card games comes from knowing what to do with the hand you have been dealt. The more a person knows about playing, the more it can increase the chances of winning. But a win is never guaranteed, because part of the game involves chance: A player has no control over the cards that he or she is dealt. Even the best player can carry a losing hand.
It might seem like gambling is a harmless pastime — after all, 48 U.S. states have some form of legalized gambling. But gambling — even Internet gambling — can easily become a problem that affects not just the person, but that person’s family and friends as well. For some people, gambling can become as serious an addiction as drugs, tobacco, or alcohol.
Why Do People Do It?
It might seem like the obvious reason for gambling is to make money. But that’s only part of the story. For many gamblers, it’s as much about the fun and excitement — the rush and high from winning (or thinking of gambling) — as it is about winning money.
Sometimes people start gambling because their friends are into it or they have a family member who gambles. In fact, the main thing that puts teens at risk for gambling problems is influence from family members and friends.
Some people gamble simply because they’re bored or lonely. Some teens who develop a gambling problem say they gamble as a way to escape or to avoid problems at home. The trouble is, gambling may start out as a casual distraction. But because it works on the risk and reward part of our brains, people can end up addicted.
That’s why it helps to ask yourself some questions about gambling, for example:
- “Is it really good for me?”
- “Even if it’s fun, is it worth my time?”
- “What are the risks?”
Some people have a higher chance of becoming addicted to gambling. Those who have trouble controlling impulses, like people with ADHD, can be at greater risk for developing an addiction. So can people whose personalities mean they enjoy taking risks.
This doesn’t mean people who have these issues will automatically get addicted to gambling, of course. Most don’t. But they are more likely to get sucked in. So they need to be extra cautious and aware of the risks if they decide to try gambling.
Problems Associated With Gambling Addiction
First and foremost, excessive gambling can cost you a lot of money. Gamblers may experience “hot streaks” from time to time where they win. But the odds will always be against them, and they usually end up down (that’s how casinos make a profit since they couldn’t stay in business if people kept winning!).
People with severe gambling addiction can gamble away everything they have and even resort to stealing money to fuel their gambling habits.
Gambling can cause someone to lose interest in other activities. When people skip school or miss work in order to gamble it affects their chances of having a good job or career. Gambling can also affect personality, causing mood swings and problems in someone’s social life and personal relationships.
As gambling becomes a larger presence in someone’s life, it can alienate friends and loved ones and cause friction and bad feelings at home.
Gambling can even affect a person’s health, causing sleep problems, anxiety, stress, depression, unexplained anger, thoughts of suicide, and suicide attempts.
Also, since gambling is almost always against the law for minors, and because gamblers can be driven to crime to fund their addictions, teen gamblers can develop serious legal problems.
What Signs Indicate a Gambling Problem?
Gambling problems can be tough to detect. Unlike other addictions, there generally aren’t a lot of physical warnings. There may be some telltale signs, such as tiredness or irritability, money problems, turning to crime, or bad grades. But much of the time, problem gamblers won’t show obvious symptoms.
As with many addictions, family members and friends often notice the problem first. The person gambling may not believe he or she has a problem.
If you suspect that you, a friend, or a family member might have a problem, ask a few questions about the gambling. Answering “yes” to any of these questions may indicate a risk for gambling addiction:
- Do you think about gambling more and more (or all the time) and find yourself planning the next time you’ll play?
- Do you have a new circle of friends that only includes the people you know through gambling?
- Does it seem like you spend more time gambling than you do doing anything else?
- Has your gambling led to problems at school, such as poor grades, absenteeism, or lateness?
- Have you ever spent your lunch money or bus fare on gambling?
- Have you ever taken money from someone without their knowledge to finance your gambling?
- Have you ever lied to a friend or family member about your gambling or do you feel the need to be secretive about your gambling activities?
- Have you ever stolen money or shoplifted to finance your gambling?
- Have you ever committed (or thought about committing) another crime to get money for gambling?
- Do you gamble for longer than you planned or do you find yourself gambling for longer and longer periods of time?
- Do you spend more money on gambling than you meant to or have you ever gambled away all the money you had before you stopped?
- Do you ever gamble out of boredom or as a way to escape your problems?
- Have you ever had to ask for help with your gambling problems or have you tried to quit gambling and been unable to do so?
- Does a big win make you want to gamble again right away?
- Does a big loss make you want to gamble immediately so you can win your money back?
- Has gambling ever made you think of committing suicide or caused you to attempt suicide?
- Has gambling led to problems at home or had an effect on your relationships with your friends and family?
If you’ve asked yourself these questions about your gambling (or someone else’s) and answered yes to more than a few of them, the next thing to do is get help.
How to Get Help
If you think you have a problem, tell a family member, school counselor, or someone you trust about your gambling. If you believe a friend or family member is developing a gambling habit, talk to a school counselor, parent, or other trusted adult.
Distraction can work well in breaking a gambling habit, if the habit hasn’t become too much of a problem. Try finding a new hobby or something better to do. Just having something to take your mind off gambling can go a long way toward helping you stop. Be realistic, though. If this approach doesn’t work, the next step should be to talk to a counselor or call a hotline.
Most states have gambling help hotlines that you can call toll free, and there are numerous support groups online. These groups also can offer advice to people who are looking for help for friends and family members who have gambling problems.
Recovery programs that include group therapy and counseling sessions have helped many gamblers overcome their addiction. Talking with people who have been through the experience can provide both support and ideas for overcoming the problem.
Different styles of treatment work better for different people, so it can sometimes take a few tries to figure out what works for you. Just be sure to keep trying if your first option doesn’t work.
Gambling can be a difficult habit to break. It may seem like quitting should be easy, but — as with any strong habit — it can be hard to do alone. Counselors and therapists are trained to help people discover inner strengths that allow them to overcome problems.