Recent trends show that underage online gambling is increasing. Should parents be worried? Aoife Moynihan reports on the situation on the Northern Beaches.

The Federal Government’s You win some, you lose more (YWSYLM) report on gambling, published in June 2023, reported that in 2022, up to 40 per cent of adolescents reported gambling on digital games. In 2020, 36.5 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds had purchased loot boxes (interactive game features with the chance to win in-game currency).

Social casino games were played by 26 per cent, 31.7 per cent had played games with gambling components, and 14.5 per cent had gambled on skins. Skins are cosmetic items to be purchased that change the appearance of characters or weapons.

The report found that loot boxes were found in almost 60 per cent of the top games in the Google Play Store and the Apple Store, and 36 per cent on Steam.

Another worry is that verification of a user’s age can take three days for new online accounts, which potentially allows children 72 gambling hours.

Gambling companies spent $283 million on one million gambling advertisements on television, radio and online from May 2022 to April 2023, an Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) study found.

‘The issue for parents is going to be gigantic’

“Gambling has become a major public health problem as advertising has been normalised to such a degree that our children can now not escape it,” Pittwater MP Sophie Scamps tells Peninsula Living Pittwater.

Last October, the independent called for a parliamentary inquiry into gambling advertising and children.

Dr Scamps says that young people are ‘being targeted by gambling companies – on their phones, in the privacy of their bedrooms or on the bus – that are seeking to profit from them at a vulnerable age when habits are often set up for life’.

The link between video gaming and gambling was examined in the Federal Government’s Growing up in Australia: the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) in 2022.

LSAC found that children who played simulated gambling games, such as Zynga Poker, Slotomania and Big Fish in adolescence had a 40 per cent higher chance of spending real money on gambling when they turned 18.

Amanda Watkins, a youth worker specialist at Dee Why’s The Burdekin Association agrees there’s a close connection between gaming and gambling. One can lead to the other. And it can snowball.

“The problem is growing and it’s not going to stop.” Amanda Watkins, The Burdekin Association

“The problem is just growing, and it’s not going to stop,” says Ms Watkins. “Parents are going to be so far behind the eight ball when it comes to dealing with gambling dependency.” A spokesperson for the Office of Responsible Gambling (OFRG) tells Peninsula Living Pittwater: “The NSW Government recognises that gambling causes harm.”

The spokesperson added that government-commissioned studies had found that adolescents were at risk of gambling harm due to parental influence and also gambling advertising (Youth Gambling Study 2022 and Role of Parents in Youth Gambling).

Dr Scamps says that we need to ‘build stronger protections for our children into our national laws,’ as has been done in Europe and the UK.

“Our vastly outdated Privacy Act is currently being reviewed, and I will support the proposal to prevent the targeting of advertising at our kids,” Dr Scamps says. “I’m told that this would be easy for digital platforms to implement – as simple as flicking a switch.”

The OFRG spokesperson says the government funds education initiatives and provides free support to those with problem gambling.

“In 2022/23, GambleAware services supported nearly 3,600 people in over 16,700 counselling sessions, and the GambleAware Helpline provided over 19,000 people with telephone crisis support.

“The Gambling Help Online website and counselling service supported a further 2,935 people through other conversations,” the spokesperson says.

The Burdekin Association has received funding for youth gambling awareness and Ms Watkins is currently developing ‘B A GameChanger,’ a peer program to empower Year 10 students on the Northern Beaches to recognise gambling issues among their peers.

Dr Carr-Gregg says its important for parents to educate their children

Ms Watkins says many parents are so busy, they hand over their credit cards to their kids to pay for a subscription, and the parents don’t know what they’re paying for.

“Is it really a subscription they’re paying for?” asks Ms Watkins. “Or is it really a gambling thing? Sometimes, the credit card bill comes in, and they don’t even see it. The issue for parents is going to be gigantic.”

Cathy Ellis, a representative of GambleAware Sydney (Northern and Central Coast), educates the community on problem gambling and is collaborating with Ms Watkins.

Ms Ellis says GambleAware has many male clients in their twenties who started gambling 10 years prior when teenagers. This is why creating awareness among teens about this issue is so important, Ms Ellis adds.

She says it wouldn’t be unusual for parents to give kids access to their sports betting account with their credit card linked. “It’s easy to rack up quite a lot of money,” she says.

Michael Carr-Gregg, psychologist and author, tells Peninsula Living Pittwater that family attitudes towards gambling can influence a child’s perception of gambling, and parents need to have open discussions about the risks.

Dr Scamps has concerns about gambling advertising

“We need to build stronger protections for our children.” Pittwater MP Sophie Scamps

“It’s crucial for parents to be proactive in educating their children about the potential harms of gambling and to seek professional help if they suspect their child has a gambling problem,” says Dr Carr-Gregg.

He says signs of a problem could be borrowing or stealing money, mood swings, withdrawal from friends and an interest in competition and winning.

“If parents suspect a teenager has a gambling problem, it’s important to seek professional treatment – starting with your local GP.”