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Gambling and games of chance have been popular throughout history. The globalization of gambling has passed through a number of cycles. More so than in the past, gambling is viewed as a socially acceptable form of entertainment. While gambling activities can take many forms and vary across cultures and jurisdictions, most individuals gamble for enjoyment, for entertainment, to socialize, and to try their luck without experiencing many negative repercussions.
Gambling can be viewed on a continuum, ranging from non-gambling to social gambling to pathological gambling. While most adults gamble without experiencing many adverse consequences, a small proportion of adults (0.4–3%) experience significant gambling-related problems, with an even larger proportion of adolescents (4–6%) reporting major gambling-related problems. The essential characteristic associated with pathological gambling is that it is a persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behavior that negatively disrupts personal, familial, social, economic, and vocational pursuits. Given the widespread proliferation and expansion of government-regulated and sponsored forms of gambling, gambling is quickly becoming a prominent social policy issue.
Pathological gambling, conceptualized as an impulsecontrol disorder, results in an individual’s inability to stop his or her gambling in spite of multiple negative consequences. While a greater number of males experience pathological gambling compared to females (estimates are that a ratio of 3:1 exists), pathological gamblers frequently experience a preoccupation with gambling, the need to substantially increase the amount and frequency of their wagers, have great difficulty stopping or reducing their gambling, and become extremely irritable when trying to limit their gambling. These individuals often gamble to escape problems or relieve stress, return to gambling in order to recoup losses, frequently lie to family members, peers, and friends in order to conceal their gambling losses, and commit illegal behaviors (both within and outside the home) to finance their gambling. Pathological gamblers jeopardize familial, peer, and vocational relationships in order to continue gambling and help relieve financial difficulties resulting from their gambling behavior.
There is considerable discussion as to whether some forms of gambling may be more problematic than others. Some research suggests that machine gambling (e.g., slot machines, video poker machines, video lottery terminals) and Internet gambling may be more problematic to some individuals because of their relatively low cost and the frequency and speed of playing while simultaneously allowing the player to go into a disassociative state. Other research suggests that there are definite differential patterns of playing and preferences for different forms of gambling depending upon one’s age, accessibility of venues, gender, and ethnic and cultural background.
An emerging body of literature suggests that certain familial factors (high rates of family gambling problems, substance abuse problems, spouse or partners with a gambling problem), biological factors (including brain chemistry and functioning, physiological indicators of arousal and the need for stimulation, genetic considerations), attentional problems, and a wide variety of physical health problems (including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems and chronic pain) are associated with pathological gambling disorders. Personality disorders related to impulsivity, sensation seeking, a high degree of risk-taking, antisocial personality disorders, oppositional defiant disorders, compulsivity, psychoticism, and neuroticism, and cognitive distortions (erroneous beliefs including an illusion that one can control the outcome of random events, a lack of recognition of the notion of independence of events, the belief in a system to “beat the odds”) have similarly been linked to pathological gambling.
From a psychological perspective, pathological gamblers have been reported to exhibit high anxiety, depression and depressive symptomatology, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, and a wide range of personality and mental health disorders. There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that pathological gamblers have a variety of comorbid alcohol and substance abuse problems. While there is no personality profile of a pathological gambler per se, there are indications that an individual’s psychological and mental state make certain individuals more susceptible to both gambling and the development of a gambling problem.
In spite of the large number of adverse behavioral traits associated with gambling, it is not unusual for individuals to fail to recognize their problems. They tend not to acknowledge their gambling problem and fail to seek help. Their perceived solution often rests on the “big win.”
Gambling Among Children and Teens
Although problem gambling has been primarily thought of as an adult behavior, considerable research indicates that it remains a very popular activity among both children and adolescents. Whether one is gambling for money on personal games of skill, cards, dice, sporting events, or lottery tickets, a high percentage of children and adolescents worldwide have been found to engage in different forms of gambling.
Studies conducted since the 1990s suggest that gambling activities remain particularly attractive to today’s youth and that its popularity is on the rise among both children and adolescents. Prevalence studies conducted in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Europe, and Australia all confirm the rising prevalence rates of youth involvement in both legal and illegal forms of gambling. While approximately 80 percent of high school students report having gambled for money during the past year, 4 to 6 percent of adolescents exhibit serious gambling problems, with another 10 to 14 percent of adolescents remaining at-risk for developing a serious gambling problem.
Adolescent pathological gamblers, like their adult counterparts and independent of the negative consequences resulting from their excessive gambling, continue to chase their losses, exhibit a preoccupation with gambling, and have an impaired ability to stop gambling in spite of repeated attempts and their desire to do so. The growing body of research with adolescents suggests that gambling and problem gambling is more popular among males than females, adolescent prevalence rates of problem gamblers are higher than those reported by adults, and there is a rapid movement from social gambler to problem gambler. Adolescent problem gamblers report initiating gambling at an early age (approximately ten years of age) as compared with peers who report gambling but have few gambling-related problems. These adolescents are greater risk takers in general and on gambling tasks in particular, exhibit lower self-esteem, exhibit higher depressive symptomatology, remain at heightened risk for suicide ideation and suicide attempts, have poor general coping skills, and report a significant number of major traumatic life events (e.g., parental loss, divorce).
Individuals with gambling problems are also more likely to report school- or work-related problems. Personality traits reveal adolescent pathological gamblers are more excitable, extroverted, and anxious, tend to have difficulty conforming to societal norms, experience difficulties with self-discipline, exhibit more anxiety, exhibit higher levels of impulsivity, and remain at increased risk for the development of multiple addictions.
New Forms of Gambling
New forms of gambling continue to be developed. With more and more governments sanctioning and regulating a multitude of different forms of gambling, its accessibility has never been easier. Problem gambling is not associated with single-trial learning. Very few individuals become addicted to the lure of gambling after their first initiation. Pathological gambling remains a progressive disorder with certain identifiable risk factors developing over time accompanied by periods of euphoria and depression.
The gambling environment today is significantly different from that of past generations. Because of its widespread acceptability, its popularity, and the enormous revenues generated from gambling, the growth of the gaming industry continues. Gambling is viewed as significantly less harmful than other potentially addictive behaviors including substance abuse, alcohol abuse, and cigarette smoking.
New forms of gambling and games will continue to emerge. Efforts at developing effective empirically sound practices concerning prevention and treatment programs have yet to be realized. Given the widespread accessibility, social acceptance and new technologies bringing gambling into the home, there remains speculation that the prevalence of pathological gambling will likely increase.
- Abbott, Max, Rachel Volberg, Maria Bellringer, and Gerta Reith. A Review of Research on Aspects of Problem Gambling. Final Report. London: Responsibility for Gambling Trust.
- American Psychiatric Association. 1992. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: Author.
- Derevensky, Jeffrey, and Rina Gupta. 2004. Adolescents with Gambling Problems: A Review of Our Current Knowledge. e-Gambling: The Electronic Journal of Gambling Issues 10: 119–140.
- Jacobs, Durand. 2004. Youth Gambling in North America: Long-Term Trends and Future Prospects. In Gambling
- Problems in Youth: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives, eds. Jeffrey Derevensky and Rina Gupta. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
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