From gaming to gambling - children at risk

  • Safeguarding professionals believe lockdown conditions have greatly increased gambling behaviour in children. They are concerned about the negative effects, as well as a lack of awareness around the risk
  • Vulnerable adults/ adults at risk are just a susceptible to the lure of gaming purchases and gambling as children and should be safeguarded
  • Research shows gambling causes lower self-esteem, poor school performance, risk of suicide in adolescents, and is directly related to other addictions

The risk to children who play online games of acquiring a gambling habit – with potential lifelong consequences – has become a growing safeguarding issue. Parents and carers need to be aware, and government should review gambling legislation and regulation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reflected the link and associated risks in stark relief. For children, six months of lockdown – a large proportion of which has been without formal schooling – has led to a huge increase in time spent gaming, and subsequently gambling.

With children bored at home, and as parents try to continue working, unsupervised increased screen time, along with advances in immersive technology, has meant many more children will pick up the habit of gambling while gaming, moving onto online gambling.

Marie Williams, Safeguarding Risk Consultant, Zurich Insurance: “Acquired gambling habits from gaming may be emerging as the next big public health issue for children, young people and adults at risk.”

Many parents and supervisors of children at play may not realise the link, or that children can even gamble. In the traditional sense, with a few exceptions, they generally can’t if they are under 18, but technology has moved beyond legislation. The Gambling Act 2005 does not legislate for purchases within online games.

Child gambling via gaming and purchasing ‘loot boxes’ and ‘skins’ is not illegal, so there is little that can be done to prevent it. Children can only be safeguarded from the risks.

Gambling companies and gaming businesses make millions out of children and young people, and their subsequent gambling habits as adults. There is little incentive to stop the very effective marketing aimed at children, and companies will continue to target them until new laws are introduced.

The Gambling Commission has voiced concern for some years. Their focus has been on children and scratch cards, lotto tickets, commercial gambling activity, and fruit machines.

The 2019 Young People and Gambling Report found that 14 per cent of 11-16-year olds spent their own money on gambling up to the value of £16 a week. The research did not specify how much they spent on online products, or how much of their parents’ money they spent.

Media reports in the last couple of years found children betting up to £250 a week (of their parents’ money) on ‘skins’ to keep up with friends’ purchases in the highly popular game Fortnite. This highlighted the issue, but lockdown escalated the problem.

Skins are graphic or audio downloads that alter the appearance of characters in video games. In ‘skin gambling’, gamers exchange virtual goods they win or buy in multi-player games for virtual gambling chips. To buy skins, players deposit money into the game’s account, it is then converted into virtual chips. These chips cannot be converted back into real money.

The harms of habitual gambling are well recorded, but what is less known are the long-term behavioural changes and the lifelong damage experienced by those who are introduced to online gambling at a young age.

The accessibility of, time spent on, and habitual nature of, online gaming is a fast-growing concern. However, there is little indication the problem is being acted on by police, regulators or government.  There is also scant guidance for parents and carers through formal routes.

Many organisations, charities, mental health services and the NHS (which has opened gambling clinics for addicts aged 13 – 25) are experiencing the problems first-hand.

Those in the safeguarding profession are pushing for:

  1. The introduction of new legislation recognising loot boxes as a form of gambling, combined with a legal definition and classification of skins and skin betting.
  2. A commitment from the gaming industry to ensure gamble-free video and mobile games for under 18s and the development of a set of criteria and technology required to identify problematic in-game spending or gambling activity.
  3. A broader definition of gambling to be included in the health education curriculum at primary school, plus the development of education programmes for parents on gambling harms.
  4. The recognition of gambling harms as an important issue for mental health support organisations in schools and colleges.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on gambling harms, as well as the Children’s Commissioner, are all backing the call for regulation.

ZM works with many customers who have a safeguarding exposure and whose vulnerable people are at risk of gambling harms. We are helping them to better understand these risks and support them with their important work to safeguard vulnerable people.