Gambling and gaming: A joint home-school response

Posted: 5th June 2023

The convergence of gaming and gambling is creating a dangerous and slippery slope for young people. Charlotte Aynsley looks at the problem, the government response thus far, and how schools and families might respond

It is not often talked about, but gambling addiction is a major issue in the UK.

Last year, YouGov research estimated that up 1.4 million people could be “problem gamblers” with addictions that harm themselves and others. Even more worryingly, the Gambling Commission (2018) believes that 50,000 of these problem gamblers are children.

Although gaming and gambling are separate activities, the link between them is well-established. Many games offer micro-transaction services which function very much like slot machines. A common model is the “loot box”, which costs real money and provides a random selection of in-game items.

These gambling-adjacent business models often net companies as much as four times more revenue than purchases of the game itself.

Unfortunately, this means there are monetary incentives to fail in their duty of care towards minors. It is completely unacceptable that companies are designing systems to take advantage of children in this way. It is time for the government to enact reforms.


Understanding gambling as behaviour

Understanding this problem requires us to understand gambling not as an activity, but as a behaviour. Playing a game of chance activates the brain’s reward system, releasing a strong dopamine hit and a feeling of pleasure. The same mechanism is at play whether the person is standing at the roulette table or playing on their phone.

Psychologists call this effect “variable rate reinforcement”. The player, in this case, is rewarded in an unpredictable manner – and the more uncertainty there is, the more dopamine gets released. Variable rate reinforcement is also known for its persistence and was studied in the 1930s by psychologist BF Skinner.

Skinner managed to coerce animals into responding to a set of stimuli (like lever-pulling for rats) within enclosed spaces known as “Skinner Boxes”. The remarkable thing was that, even when the reward had been taken away, the subject would continue to perform the action that got them the reward – the behaviour had been reinforced through expectation.

In the same way, carefully designed games of chance can take advantage of our brain’s reward system to create patterns of behaviour, such as spending money. This is particularly true for young people, as their brains have not yet developed an adult-level ability to balance risk and reward.


Addictive by design

Research suggests that children who game excessively may be more likely to develop problem gambling behaviours (King et al, 2014). Quick, intense bursts of dopamine are common to both – although that is true of many enjoyable activities.

What makes today’s gaming landscape uniquely risky is that many game developers are actively drawing inspiration from casinos to design systems that extract as much money as possible from players. Several popular games allow players to exchange real-world money for spins of the virtual wheel.

These systems are integrated seamlessly and often intentionally designed not to look like gambling – but they still rely on variable rate reinforcement. Further, they are often spread across multiple parts of the game, going beyond a single slot machine to create a whole virtual casino.

Players work to meet multiple “ends” simultaneously, such as levelling up, earning in-game currency, and upgrading their avatar. The purpose-built stimuli create a drip feed of dopamine, motivating players to keep playing and keep spending.


Gambling everywhere, for everyone

One challenging dimension to the problem is ease of access. With in-game mechanics designed to imitate games of chance, a gambling addiction can take place entirely within a child’s home. In some cases, children have spent more than £6,000 on in-game micro-transactions, and one teenager spent his student loan and family savings on FIFA loot boxes.

The charity GambleAware has found that of the 93% of children who play games, 40% use loot boxes. Just 5% of them are responsible for half of the revenue gaming companies make from the micro-transactions, and the charity estimates that one-third of them are problem gamblers (Close & Lloyd, 2021).

There is also a social dimension. Children (and adults) often feel pushed to keep buying loot boxes to ensure they have the “best” in-game equipment so then can remain competitive among friends. The result is a toxic combination of gambling and peer pressure.


What is being done?

Other countries, such as Belgium, have banned gambling mechanics in games. There was a consultation to consider a similar move in the UK, but the government rejected it in 2022 due to the potential for “unintended consequences”.

Although the government will not ban these mechanics outright, there are still potential legislative solutions for protecting young people. The current Age-Appropriate Design Code and government’s proposed Online Safety Bill both contain elements designed to safeguard children from gambling, unhealthy gaming, and other potentially harmful online content.

The Online Safety Bill will create a legal duty for companies providing online services to shield underage customers against various online harms.

In terms of gambling, the Bill will block access to online gambling content and prevent gambling-related ads from being served to children. This will be verifiable, as it will also require disclosure of the types of content and advertisements served to customers.

The Age-Appropriate Design Code (see further information), which contains 15 standards that online services need to follow to ensure they are complying with their obligations under data protection law to protect children’s data online, requires age verification for online content and services.

This makes it easier to prevent minors from viewing any age-restricted content, including online gambling. Online services also are required to provide parental controls, enabling parents or other care-givers to restrict children’s access to content.

In terms of gambling specifically, the code requires businesses to provide clear information in age-appropriate terms.

Recently the government published its white paper on gambling (DCMS, 2023), but none of the proposed new regulations (so far) will affect gaming,


Gaps in the bills

Both the Age-Appropriate Design Code and Online Safety Bill represent progress – they do and will enable better safeguarding overall by including features that restrict gambling specifically. However, there are also areas for improvement. Here are three

Enforcement and accountability: We don’t yet know how strong the Online Safety Bill’s enforcement mechanisms will be. Ensuring that they are as robust as possible will ensure that children are well-protected against harmful content online, including gambling, and that companies that neglect their duty of care are held accountable. Furthermore, the Age-Appropriate Design Code is already in law, yet we are still seeing non-compliance from online companies, demonstrating why greater enforcement is imperative.

Education and awareness: There is room to go beyond the Age-Appropriate Design Code’s disclosures about gambling. A better approach would be to provide children, parents, educators, and other care-givers with information on the risks of gambling and gambling-adjacent activities. As well as informing people, this also normalises a conversation between parents and children about those risks.

Support for children and families: Prevention is essential, but we can’t lose sight of the children and families who are already suffering. Greater access to counselling and other support services must be a key tenet of future legislation. It is also essential that we openly discuss the support available – a child should never feel uncomfortable seeking help for issues with gambling.


Talking to children about the issue

In addition to legislation, there is an important role for schools and parents in leading constructive conversations around gambling.

Parents must continue to work to understand the risks facing their children, set reasonable boundaries, and maintain a healthy level of control over their online behaviour. Some positive steps include monitoring the child’s in-game purchases, limiting screentime and discussing the risks posed by gambling with them.

Family attitudes towards gambling also play a massive role. Parents should consider whether their children are being exposed to fruit machines, scratch cards or sports betting and how regularly. The more a child is exposed to gambling, the more normalised it becomes.

Similarly, parents may want to avoid framing things in gambling terms where possible. “I bet you can’t swim to the other side of the pool – I’ll buy you an ice cream if you can” may seem innocuous, but it teaches the wrong lesson.

Schools and teachers have less control over a child’s online behaviour, but they also have an important role to play. The school can function as a safe, open environment where children learn about and discuss the risks of gambling. The statutory RSHE curriculum states that by the end of secondary school, students must have learnt about “the risks related to online gambling including the accumulation of debt” (DfE, 2019).

This education is most effective when aligned with the messages children are getting at home.

Both parents and schools also need to look out for the warning signs that a young person may be vulnerable to gambling. Working to address existing social, educational, or mental health problems might enable adults to intervene before an unhealthy gambling habit can form.


Towards greater prevention and management

Gambling, especially when integrated into the games that children already enjoy, can look like a way to cope with boredom or escape from stress or other problems. But it takes advantage of young people’s developing brains.

There is cause for optimism in the government’s proposed legislation, but that is just the start. Parents and schools must continue to learn about how gambling can creep into children’s lives and work to protect them from it.


Further information & resources



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