Young men are more likely to form gambling addictions after engaging in online sports betting, experts warn, raising red flags about the lucrative gambling craze sweeping the country.
Sports betting was federally banned until 2018, but is now legal in-person and online in the District of Columbia and 29 states, and legal in-person in seven more.
Americans have already gambled a record-breaking $79 billion on games this year, on-pace to spend more than $100 billion in 2023, and USA Today estimates each state’s sports betting market is worth about $2.6 billion — more than doubling since 2019.
Even ESPN, the ubiquitous sports network, is getting in on the action. They launched their own sports gambling company, or sportsbook, called ESPN Bet two weeks ago.
As new states legalize sports betting for a cut of the industry’s massive profits, troubling signs of gambling addictions have emerged.
Calls to gambling addiction hotlines increased by as much as 425% in some states after legalizing sports betting, Newsweek reports.
Some experts additionally claim state hotlines are fielding more calls from or about children. Others claim more people in their teens and twenties are attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings, according to Vice.
Experts like Keith Whyte, the executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), believe online sports betting has increased people’s risk for forming gambling addictions.
“[The NCPG] believes the risks from gambling addiction overall have grown 30% from 2018 [when sports betting was legalized] to 2021,” Whyte told Pew Research last year, “with the risk concentrated among young males 18 to 24 who are sports bettors.”
The Rutgers Center for Gambling Studies (RCGS) also found young people who gambled online more vulnerable to becoming addicted in a study released this September.
Thirty percent of surveyed 18- to 24-year-olds reported gambling online, the study found — four times as many as in 2017, when people couldn’t bet money on sports. Rutgers subsequently labeled 19% of respondents “at risk for problem gambling.”
Young men are already at risk for gambling problems because developing brains are “predisposed to addiction,” according to Pamela Brenner-Davis of the New York Council on Problem Gambling, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making and impulsivity, is especially late to develop in men.
Gambling in-person, though less convenient than online gambling, gives people time to re-consider placing impulsive bets by requiring someone enter a casino or make physical cash withdrawals.
Online sports betting removes these safeguards, allowing impulsive or emotional sports fans to place bets at the push of a button — no casino or ATM required.
“You can play as fast as you want, as quick as you want,” Jim Maney, the executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling, tells the Washington Post. “The technology is so fast and easy.”
All of a sudden, how much money are we spending? Before you know it, you’re going down the rabbit hole.
But online sportsbooks aren’t just a slippery slope — they’re an invitation to excess. Many take advantage of viewer’s impulsivity by including apps with in-game betting, a feature that lets gamblers bet without pausing the game.
In-game betting is particularly dangerous for impulsive or addicted gamblers because people can put money “on everything from who will win the coin toss to which quarterback will throw 100 yards first to how long the national anthem will last,” explains Lia Nower, the director of the RCGS.
Endless action means endless opportunities to bet impulsively — and endless opportunities for bettors to promise themselves they’ll win big next time.
Sports betting is more highly associated than other kinds of gambling with the illusion of control, a cognitive distortion that convinces bettors their wins depend on skill and knowledge, rather than chance and luck.
This illusion appeals to men’s natural preference for strategy games, and can encourage addicts and novices to place increasingly larger wagers to dig themselves out of a financial hole.
It might also explain why, in a 2021 survey of 3,000 respondents, 75% of male sports bettors 18- to 24-years-old told the NCPG either gambling was a good way to make money or that they were unsure.
Respondents 65-and-older, in contrast, unanimously answered gambling was a poor way to make money.
“That’s terrifying,” Whyte told USA Today of the survey, continuing,
They’re going into their gambling careers looking to gamble completely the wrong way, and that is definitely a risk for gambling problems.
Young men’s naivete concerning the dangers of gambling could also stem from the way sportsbooks are associated with the wholesome legacy of sports, rather than the spotty reputation of gambling, which is often associated with crime, drunkenness and lack of self-control.
Sports gambling ads are plastered all over social media, and its TV commercials feature celebrities and sports icons like Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart and Drew Brees. Several sportsbooks have made deals with major sports leagues like the NFL and MLB, and 12 are attached to sports stadiums.
“Think about the ads,” Maney exclaims to the Post. “Every one of these kids is seeing them—Facebook, Instagram, every game you watch. If you’re a 12-, 14-year-old—the backdrop is DraftKings. Why wouldn’t they gamble?”
And, as the paper points out, “Parents rarely worry about their children watching too much sports—and now there are gambling prompts wired into most broadcasts.”
This judicious marketing is enticing people who would have never otherwise entered a casino to bet on sports. Some consultants believe sportsbooks will have spent approximately $1.8 billion on advertising by the end of this year.
In the face of targeted advertising, young men seem to regard sports betting as just another part of watching the game.
But it’s not — gambling addiction destroys lives, relationships and communities. Sports betting shouldn’t be normalized among children!
Unfortunately, young people are unlikely to escape advertisements for online sports betting, and there are no federal resources dedicated to teaching about and preventing gambling addictions.
That means it’s up to parents to protect their kids from falling into a sports betting trap through education. Be compassionate and open with your children about the dangers of gambling. Explain the risks, contextualize ads you see on TV, and make sure your kids know you can help if they get ensnared.
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