Children and adolescent gambling problems: INTERVIEW with Don’t Bet Yet!

It’s never too early to educate your kids about the consequences of gambling. A Q&A with Jaime Costello of the New York Council on Problem Gambling here.

minute read

Q: How do children learn about gambling?
A: Children are introduced to gambling every day by adults, parents, and peers.

Knowing this, how can we prevent and/or address problem gambling in children, teens, and young adults? One group is addressing childhood and adolescent gambling problems head-on.

It’s our pleasure to introduce to you to Jaime Costello, a prevention specialist at the New York Council on Problem Gambling. We’re talking today about their campaign, “Don’t Bet Yet!“, which is focused on giving parents the knowledge and resources to teach their kids about problem gambling.

The take home lesson

It’s never to soon to educate your kid about gambling. You have the power to help prevent a serious problem in the future. Take a look at our interview for more, and if you have questions about children and gambling, please contact us through the comments section at the end. We’ll try to get you back with a personal and prompt response.

ADDICTION BLOG: Thanks for joining us Jaime!

Statistics we’ve read claim that 2.1% of US residents aged 14 -21 struggle with problem gambling. That’s an alarming number. Can you explain for our readers a little bit about what the “Don’t Bet Yet!” campaign is trying to do?

DON’T BET YET: Problem gambling, or even the activity of gambling, is not something that a lot of parents think to talk to their kids about like they would alcohol, drugs, and other risky behaviors. A lot of parents we talk to say that they wouldn’t even know how to start that conversation. We’ve developed the “Don’t Bet Yet” campaign as a way to give parents tools and resources to use to start the conversation about problem gambling.

ADDICTION BLOG: On the subject of problem gambling, in your experience, what are the main reasons that trigger young people to start gambling?

DON’T BET YET: Most kids start gambling for many of the same reasons adults start gambling – it’s something new, it’s easy, it’s exciting, and it’s entertaining.

The teenage brain is built for activities that are social, trigger high intensity of arousal, contain some element of novelty, and are for the most part, high excitement-low effort activities. That’s because at this point in their development kids are supposed to be social and figure out where they fit in, explore the world to discover themselves, and take risks like trying out for the school play or asking someone on a date. Those are all healthy, developmentally-appropriate activities.

If you think about gambling, you’ll realize that it, too, is fairly social, novel, triggers high intensity of arousal, and is high-excitement, low-effort. Gambling is very appealing to the teenage brain.

ADDICTION BLOG: When does gambling stop being “fun and games” and becomes an addiction? Can you explain what happens in a person’s brain, what’s the process of developing the behavioral compulsion to gamble?

DON’T BET YET: Both behavior and brain chemistry play a role in problem gambling and gambling addiction. So, there really are two pieces to the puzzle when you’re talking about someone’s involvement from social gambler to problem gambler to someone with a gambling addiction – there are changes in behaviors and chemical changes to the brain.

However, there really is no magic sign or line someone crosses that helps us to recognize that gambling is no longer just a form of entertainment. When gambling starts to negatively affect other areas of your life (relationships, job/school, etc.) it’s a problem.

I always say, “The easy way to define problem gambling is anytime gambling creates a problem in your life.” Gambling addiction, or gambling disorder, is a clinical diagnosis similar to other addictions or mental health disorders. A client has to meet a number of certain criteria to be diagnosed with a gambling disorder.

Behavioral changes in gambling addicts

If you tell someone to be careful when they are gambling, they’ll most likely say something to effect of, “That won’t happen to me.” But no one decides to become an addict. It just sort of happens.

1. The winning stage

The first stage of gambling addiction is the winning stage. This is when you’re occasionally gambling and then you get a “big win.” It’s really exciting when you win and all of the sudden you think, “wow, that felt great. I’m going to try again.”

2. The losing stage

Gambling facilities are businesses, they have to make money. So they are built on the premise that the house has the advantage. What this means is that the longer you play, the more you lose. So you won, it felt great, and you keep playing. Now you’re losing.

3. Hitting rock bottom

You can’t believe you’ve lost so much and now you’re desperate to make up your losses so you’re getting money wherever, whenever you can. Then at some point, you’ll more than likely lose relationships, your job, trust, etc. You’ve hit, what many call,“rock bottom.”

Chemical changes in the brain

Meanwhile, the chemicals in your brain are responding to all of this gambling activity. When you win you get a rush of dopamine – you feel alive, awake, happy. Dopamine is part of your brain’s normal reward circuit. This is the part of your brain that tells you to repeat behaviors when something makes your body feel good, or is healthy. So you’ve won, and your brain says, “Wow! That felt good! Do it again!”

And you repeat.

Now what happens when you gamble excessively over time is that your brain senses that there’s way too much dopamine in its system, so it turns production down as a way to protect itself. This causes you to feel a lessened “high” or “rush” when you gamble. So you return to gambling expecting the same rush, and when you don’t feel that excitement, you increase your bets or gamble for longer.

ADDICTION BLOG: Are there any signs for family and loved ones to look for in order to recognize a gambling problem?

DON’T BET YET: There are a number of “red flags” that might indicate that someone you love has a gambling problem. Below are just some examples, but I‘m a big fan of better safe than sorry.

As parents, if our child is acting “different,” our first concern is often alcohol or other drugs. It’s important to remember, that a change in someone’s habits, behavior or personal life, can indicate a number of problems – including a gambling problem.

  1. Unexplained absences from school or work
  2. Sudden drop in grades or a decrease in job performance
  3. Change of personality or behavior
  4. Exaggerated display of money or other material possessions
  5. Bragging about winning at gambling
  6. Intense interest in gambling conversations
  7. Unusual interest in newspapers/magazines/periodicals/sports scores
  8. Unaccountable explanation for new items of value in possession
  9. Borrowing or stealing money
  10. Using earmarked money (eg. grocery money, tuition, medication budget, etc.) for gambling
  11. Withdrawing from family and friends
  12. Uncharacteristically forgetting appointments or other important dates
  13. Exaggerated use of word “bet” in vocabulary and/or use of gambling language in conversations (e.g. bookie, point spread, underdog, favorite)

ADDICTION BLOG: Do you have any statistics about what groups of people are mostly affected by gambling problems ?

DON’T BET YET: There are a number of populations who are more at-risk for developing a gambling problem. Two of those groups are youth and senior citizens, or as I like to call them “retirees.”

Youth at risk of gambling problems

As we mentioned earlier about brain development, youth are at a much higher risk for developing a gambling problem. Not only is their brain primed for gambling activities, but they are also historically not great at decision-making.

The last part of our brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of our brain responsible for decision-making. Teens don’t have what they call the “seat of second thought.” When faced with a decision, they choose the option that appeals the most to them, instead of the option that may be the healthiest for them in the long run. Our brain doesn’t really figure out how logically make decisions until about the age of 25.

Seniors at risk of gambling problems

Seniors, on the other hand, are more at-risk because of the stage that they are at in their lives. Some of those who retire find themselves bored and feeling like they don’t have a purpose. They may also be living on a reduced, fixed income if they are unable to work. Many seniors are lonely because their children are out holding down jobs and raising families of their own.

Another key risk factor is grief. The older we get, the more grief we have to deal with. Seniors are at a really tough stage in life. They sometimes see gambling not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a way to escape reality and the possibility to make more money. Anytime you utilize an unhealthy behavior as a coping mechanism you put yourself at an increased risk of developing an addiction or problem with that behavior. And as I mentioned earlier, gambling should not be used as a way to make money. Only the house is guaranteed to make money.

ADDICTION BLOG: It seems like the campaign focuses on helping parents educate children about gambling. What kind of resources are you using in the campaign, and what kind of methods do you suggest that parents try out?

DON’T BET YET: The main website for the campaign is  The main resource highlighted on the website is the “Go Away Monster Video.” “Go Away Monster” is a cartoon that is designed to help kids understand what problem gambling is and to show them how problem gambling can affect a family.

  1. If parents prefer to use a book, “Go Away Monster” is also available in the form of a comic book on the website. Other resources include a word search, a fill-in-the-blank, a budgeting worksheet, a worksheet that helps kids to identify safe people to talk to, and more.
  2. In planning to talk to kids about gambling it’s really important to be prepared. I would recommend that parents explore some of the Don’t Bet Yet resources as well as others we have available on, and really start to feel comfortable themselves with problem gambling.
  3. And then I think it’s really important to use teachable moments to start the conversation. When you are watching a TV show that portrays gambling, or when you talk about going to the casino. Those are all great times to naturally start a conversation with your child about gambling.
  4. You also need to be very clear with your child about your feelings toward youth gambling and adult gambling behaviors. A very clear message is received when you say, “Gambling is not okay for you to do.”

ADDICTION BLOG: This campaign is about preventing gambling. What can parents of kids already affected by gambling do? Do you provide help for them? Can you recommend reading, resources, or professional services?

DON’T BET YET: Parents who suspect their child is gambling need to take action now. The sooner we intervene and offer help to someone who may have a gambling problem, the easier it is for them to recover.

I’m proud to say that in New York State – help is available and people do recover from problem gambling. A list of gambling treatment providers in NYS can be found in two places. On the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) website ( and on our Know The Odds website ( Parents can also call the NYS HOPEline at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-800-846-7369) to get information or help anytime, any day.

There are also some website that parents can check out for more information about youth gambling:

  • Home of the “Go Away Monster!” video and activity kit
  • Home of statistics, links, e-books, and videos surrounding problem gambling issues
  • Home of the New York Council on Problem Gambling: training information, online classes, Annual Conference information, and general resources
  • Home of McGill University’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviors
  • Home of the National Center on Responsible Gaming’s website for current an prospective students, campus administrators, campus health professionals and parents address gambling and gambling-related harms on campus.

ADDICTION BLOG: How do you think that this campaign will help, what are your expectations of this campaign? Do you have any feedback or measurements of success?

DON’T BET YET: The goal of this campaign was to encourage parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of gambling and to give them resources to help them with that conversation. So far that seems to be working.

We have utilized our relationships with OASAS prevention providers to help get the word out about the campaign and resources. We also did a small amount of advertising at the launch of the campaign. In response, we’ve seen a fair amount of people visiting the website and downloading the materials. The campaign website and materials will remain available at Our hope is that parents will continue to access and utilize the resources.

ADDICTION BLOG: “Don’t bet yet!” has been created by The New York Council on Problem Gambling, but can you share with us what kind of professionals were involved in its creation? Also, are there any other organizations supporting or promoting the campaign?

DON’T BET YET: We work with Over It – a media company located in Albany, NY – to assist us in developing many of our media campaigns and materials. They were a key partner in the development of the Don’t Bet Yet campaign and materials. For support and assistance with promotion we’ve really relied on our partners in the field (OASAS prevention and treatment providers) as well as social media to help get the word out about the resources.

ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

DON’T BET YET: I think the key to reducing gambling among youth, and in turn preventing a rise in problem gambling among New Yorkers, is COMMUNICATION.

It’s so important to talk to kids and help them to understand the dangers associated with gambling. We need to think about the messages we are sending to children with our behaviors and our language. It really comes down to asking ourselves, “What message am I sending?” and “Is that the message I want to send?” If you need help sending the right messages, or want to know more about the Don’t Bet Yet campaign check out the resources at

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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