CLEVELAND, Ohio — Since sports betting became legal in Ohio Jan. 1, gambling in the state has been booming. But while the casinos, mobile app companies and the state government are counting the cash, there’s some legitimate concern that sports betting both normalizes and makes gambling accessible in new and dangerous ways.
This is especially true for both children and teens too young to gamble legally and even young adults of gambling age who experts say are particularly vulnerable to developing addictive behaviors because the decision-making parts of their brains have not fully developed.
Early statistics show that the vast majority of sports bets are placed via one of the many mobile betting apps like FanDuel or DraftKings, making sports betting one of the easiest and most accessible forms of gambling.
Ohioans placed $1.11 billion in bets in January, and of those, $1.09 billion came from sports betting mobile apps. Even non-sports-related gambling may have benefitted from the sports betting launch, with the state’s 11 casinos and racinos taking in record-breaking revenue.
The legal age for placing bets in Ohio is 21. Sports betting apps match Social Security numbers to name and address information in order to verify age and identity. Cleveland.com tested the identity verification process for one service by providing the Social Security number of a person under the legal betting age with a false birthdate. The registration was denied.
However, because these bets are being placed via mobile app, like all other online transactions, it’s impossible to know whether the person making the transaction is who they claim.
An ABC news story published in December featured an 18-year-old who racked up thousands of dollars in debt by using other people’s accounts, and offshore illegal websites.
“If you have a phone and you have a connection to the internet, you can gamble whenever you want,” he told ABC’s Juju Chang, adding, that there are probably more teenagers with gambling problems than adults are aware of.
According to statistics from the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors, 60% to 80% of high schoolers say they have gambled for money in the last year and 4% to 6% are addicted to gambling.
Compare that to the rate of problem gambling in adults, estimated to be only 1%.
The explanation for this dramatic difference lies in the brain, say addiction researchers.
The parts of the brain that processes emotion and impulses develop before the pre-frontal cortex — the part that processes complex information. This leads young people to make irrational decisions driven by emotional or social situations, rather than carefully considered choices based on logic.
As the logic centers of the brain mature, young people become much better at weighing risky behaviors against their potential rewards and consequences.
Targeting the immature brain
The legal age of gambling is well below the age that scientists believe this final brain maturation occurs. The brains of young adults are still thought to be maturing until the mid to late 20s, making young adult gamblers especially vulnerable.
So how does the developing brain that doesn’t understand risk approach gambling?
“I think the answer is: it doesn’t understand risk the same way that an older brain does, and that’s a concern.” said Josh Grubbs, a Bowling Green State University professor who studies gambling addiction.
“So, when we are thinking about those younger men who are placing more bets, they are a particularly at-risk group because they don’t think about loss or risk nearly as much.”
Grubbs says that he’s less concerned about teenagers stealing their parents credit cards and identities for online gambling, because, while it certainly might be happening, it’s likely a much smaller part of the problem.
Instead, he’s more worried about young adults who are not much older than 21, or “college students that are around older, but still young people who have access to gambling,” Grubbs said, citing an example of a college fraternity where sports betting was popular.
“Maybe you don’t have to have an online sportsbook to get involved with that. Maybe you actually get into trouble betting against your frat brothers,” said Grubbs. “I think that’s another avenue that could be problematic that we should be thoughtful about.”
Colleges and universities don’t necessarily devote many resources to generating awareness about problem gambling, but many appear eager to get their cut of the sports-betting spoils.
Ohio University started a certificate program, preparing students to work in the sports gambling industry, and the New York Times reported that colleges and universities in other states were making multi-million-dollar deals with sportsbooks to direct gambling advertising to their students, the majority of which are under 21.
Ohio has made an effort to police marketing to those not legally old enough to gamble. For example, the Ohio Casino Control Commission reached settlements last month with two different companies.
Barstool Sportsbook will pay $250,000 because of a live event held outside the University of Toledo’s football stadium. Regulators say the company broke two rules; advertising on or near a college campus and targeting customers who are under 21.
DraftKings Sportsbook will pay $500,000 because of two separate infractions. In December, regulators said the company was mailing advertisements to people under 21. In January, DraftKings was accused of breaking two rules: not having a message about problem gambling, and advertising “free” or “risk-free” bets.
Starting gambling education early
Research shows that the earlier the participation or exposure to gambling in childhood, the more likely a person is to develop a gambling problem later in life, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. The dramatic rise in popularity of sports betting is exposing a whole generation of kids to gambling just by watching sports, long before they are old enough to place legal bets.
This has a growing number of experts concerned that problem gambling in younger people is not being sufficiently addressed. Most gambling treatment and prevention programs are geared toward adults.
“Kids who have problems fall through the cracks,” said Keith Whyte executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
In response, some states are attempting to counter pro-gambling messages with school-based gambling education programs. Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina recently passed laws requiring gambling education in schools or have developed and implemented programs. In other states, like Maryland and West Virginia, attempts to pass legislation on gambling education has failed.
These differences underscore the problem that how much, if any, education kids get about the risks of gambling in school is going to be entirely dependent on where they live, say proponents of gambling education. Each state has to tackle the issue individually, which means that unlike drugs and alcohol, kids across the country are not getting a single clear message about the dangers of gambling addiction.
State taxes on gaming revenues and the portion of the money that goes toward treatment and prevention varies widely. In Ohio, 2% of the state gambling tax revenue is earmarked for prevention and treatment of gambling addiction. It is yet unclear whether any of that money will be used to for programs designed specifically to educate children, teens or college students, and school-based gambling education programs are available, but not mandated.
No federal tax dollars currently go to help prevent or treat gambling addiction according to the council.
Likewise, there is no federal funding for research into gambling addiction, Grubbs said.
“I don’t think we need the same kind of federal funding that the opioid crisis or the alcohol crisis might need, but we probably need more than zero dollars,” Grubb said.
“We are at this point where gambling is accessible enough, it’s available in the majority of U.S. states now. It’s time for the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Mental Health to consider gambling as something they need to study more. Because I don’t think they’ve ever funded research directly on this topic.”
Understanding the odds
One thing is clear, the exposure of young people to gambling has changed dramatically in a very short time. In under five years, since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened expansion for sports gambling beyond Nevada, sports betting has become legal in the majority of states and teens and young adults who might never set foot in a casino are suddenly being exposed to normalized, actively promoted gambling around sports.
In addition, sports betting today offers easy mobile access and more varied opportunities to bet than ever before. Research shows that people who make lots of different kinds of bets and place bets during games, are more likely to have a problem.
“There’s certainly a level of almost mind-boggling ways to bet on sports now compared to what it used to be,” Grubbs said.
There are a lot of reasons why people gamble says Grubbs.
For some it’s just entertainment, while others use it as a means to escape like alcohol or drugs. But when it comes to sports, he says a lot of gamblers think they can make money. The type of bets, and the nature of the games lead a lot of gamblers to think they have special knowledge and can beat the house — and Grubbs says a lot of problem gambling develops from that type of magical thinking.
A small percentage of players do make money betting, Grubbs says, but the reality is that most people trying to make money gambling end up losing a lot more.
Only time will tell what impact sports betting will have on a generation of kids growing up exposed to legalized gambling.
Meanwhile, in the absence of statewide or national gambling education, Grubbs offers a simple message parents can offer up as a counter to the gambling-positive messaging that might lead their children’s immature, vulnerable brains to make bad decisions.
“The whole model of gambling relies on people losing,” Grubbs said.
Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer may earn revenue from sports betting operators for audience referrals to betting services. Sports betting operators have no influence over news coverage. See operator site for terms and conditions. If you or a loved one has questions and needs to talk to a professional about gambling, call the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-589-9966 or the National Council on Program Gambling Helpline (NCPG) at 1-800-522-4700 or visit 1800gambler.net for more information. 21+ and present in Ohio. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-Gambler.
Gretchen Cuda Kroen covers healthcare for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. Read previous work at this link.
Gambling helpline calls double in first month of legal sports betting in Ohio – cleveland.com
Ohioans bet big at area sportsbooks on first day of legal sports gambling (photos, video) – cleveland.com