Skip Navigation
Logo for: 21 For a Reason

Underage Sports Betting: A Risk Factor for Substance Use

Posted on

Studies repeatedly show a strong association between youth gambling addiction and substance use—and with gambling now more accessible than ever to teens and adolescents, this should be cause for concern. Alarmingly, three out of four youth with a gambling addiction also struggle with alcohol use, while 60% are addicted to nicotine.

For young people who gamble, there’s more to lose than just money. The human brain continues developing until about age 25, with the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning, setting priorities, and making good decisions) among the last to finish. Because of this, even the most mature teens are ill-equipped to gamble responsibly; they may place riskier bets, chase their losses, and find it difficult to walk away. Moreover, the stress and anxiety often caused by gambling in secret and facing financial losses can cause young people to turn to drugs, alcohol, or nicotine—making them highly likely to develop a co-occurring substance use problem.

Connecticut’s Gambling Landscape

Here in Connecticut, gambling is a common form of entertainment. The state’s eastern region is home to two of the largest casinos in the U.S., and recent legislative changes have ushered in a host of additional gambling options. Adults aged 21+ can partake in casino games, poker games, sports betting, and keno, while those aged 18+ can participate in bingo games and horse race betting—and each type of gambling is now available both in-person and online.

Unfortunately, the social normalization of gambling, along with the now-ubiquitous ads for it (often with celebrity spokespeople and enticing sign-up offers) have served to increase gambling rates among younger populations. Even though most youth report that they don’t gamble, their attitudes towards it are becoming more casual. When SERAC’s 2021-22 School Health Survey asked Connecticut students in grades 6-12 to consider whether their peers and parents would approve of them gambling:

  • 36.4% reported that their peers would feel it would be very wrong.
  • 49% said that their parents would think it would be very wrong.

In addition, many schools and organizations lack formal policies which clearly prohibit underage gambling. These indifferent attitudes can prevent teens from even realizing how risky gambling can be—which in turn may contribute to how quickly underage gambling can spiral out of control.

How Online Sports Gambling Raises the Stakes

Among the variety of gambling forms, sports betting has already been recognized as particularly risky. Those who bet on sports are more than twice as likely to develop a gambling problem compared to other gamblers. When the betting can be done online—which was legalized in Connecticut in 2021—the risk skyrockets. Players can place a bet anytime, anywhere—even vulnerable teens, since, in many cases, only an age confirmation checkbox stands in their way. They may sneak in a bet during a bathroom break at school, or in their bedroom at night. Even when teens are home by curfew or in a safe place, they aren’t necessarily protected from gambling.

Yet even when online betting becomes compulsive, the problem can be hard to spot. You’d recognize red flags if your child had a problem with drugs or alcohol, and you’d notice if they were spending increasing amounts of time at a casino or pool hall. The warning signs of an online gambling problem, however, are often invisible until the problem has become severe or the financial losses have become immense.

Why Is Gambling Linked with Substance Abuse?

Problem gambling is likely to co-occur with other substance use. Among those with a gambling addiction, 75% struggle with alcohol use, 60% have a nicotine addiction, and almost 40% are addicted to illegal drugs.

Adolescence is a time of risk-taking, so it may not be surprising to learn that youth who engage in one impulsive behavior are more likely to try another as well. But young people are most likely to take these risks when they lack significant protective factors at home, school, or in the community, such as:

  • High self-esteem
  • Strong relationships with family & friends
  • Clearly established rules & boundaries
  • Positive role models
  • Participation in arts, sports, or clubs
  • A sense of belonging in their community

Without these supports, young people may seek engagement, excitement, or fulfillment elsewhere—and may turn to gambling, drinking alcohol, and/or drug use.

Problem gambling and substance use don’t always begin at the same time, of course. As a person’s gambling problem develops, they typically experience a range of intense emotions: the stress of gambling in secret; anxiety caused by financial losses; and loneliness, depression, and despair as the addiction spirals out of control. These overwhelming feelings may drive them to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, leading to co-occurring addictions.

How You Can Help

Parents play a crucial role in preventing underage sports betting. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Don’t make gambling a family activity. Even if it seems like a friendly competition or a harmless wager on a game, keep betting out of family time. Help kids learn to have fun without risking anything.
  • Don’t give lottery or scratch-off tickets as gifts to kids. Kids relish the fantasy of hitting the jackpot and the thrill of anticipation—and that’s exactly why these gifts can get kids hooked on gambling. If you need a quick present, opt for gift cards or tickets to a local attraction instead.
  • Talk often with your child about the risks. Open, honest conversations with a trusted adult are critical, especially as the frequency of gambling ads increases and as betting becomes easily accessible via smartphone apps. Let kids know that underage gambling is not only against the law, but against your house rules as well—and don’t forget to explain why.

In addition to setting these guidelines for kids, parents should also take care to monitor their own behavior. Gambling in front of your children sends the message that you approve of it—and this will resonate louder than anything you say. And when they witness frequent gambling, children learn that betting is an integral part of having a good time. If you think your gambling is becoming problematic, take the Problem Gambling Online Screening, which can evaluate whether you should seek help.

When it comes to gambling, it’s crucial to know your limits—and that’s why SERAC has chosen this as the title of our forthcoming campaign for responsible gambling. As the popularity of online sports gambling continues to grow, we believe the time to act is now. Our new campaign will spread awareness about the warning signs of problem gambling to help prevent a new epidemic among our young people. The Know Your Limits website will be launching soon!

‹ Back to Blog