How to educate students about the dangers of gambling

The proliferation of online betting sites, and blurred lines between gaming and gambling, mean more young people are chancing their arm in the hope of earning extra cash – with some risking all for their addiction. Madeline Bennett asks what colleges can do to help
29th January 2021, 12:05am
How Colleges Can Help To Prevent Students From Becoming Addicted To Gambling
Madeline Bennett


How to educate students about the dangers of gambling

Having a good job, travelling the world, owning a home, getting married, becoming a parent. If you ask any 16- to 19-year-old what they'd like to have achieved by the time they're 30, most would likely respond with something along these lines. Few would expect to be in huge amounts of debt, stealing from friends and family and contemplating suicide.

But for young people who become addicted to gambling, this is a real risk. It was the case for Ryan Pitcher, a gambler from the age of 17.

"I cry myself to sleep sometimes," he says. "I look back, and I'm ashamed and guilty. I've ruined many, many relationships. I should be in prison, to be honest.

"I didn't go to further education. I got kicked out of home, then for 15 years, I was gambling like it was a full-time job. I'm 33 now and I haven't been able to accomplish any of the things that I would have hoped at the age of 15, 16, 17. Everything came second to gambling and I wouldn't want any young person to be in the same situation."

Unfortunately, a situation like Pitcher's could soon become the reality for many more young people, owing to the rise in gambling advertising, and the proliferation of online gaming sites and apps.

According to a February 2020 report from the Gambling Commission - titled Gambling Participation in 2019: behaviour, awareness and attitudes - the number of college-age students turning to gambling is growing. In 2015, 33 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds had participated in some form of gambling in the past four weeks; by 2019, this figure had risen to 40 per cent. The online gambling numbers show a similar increase: only 9 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds were gambling online in 2015; this rose to 17 per cent by 2019.

These increasing numbers are naturally ringing alarm bells for those working in FE colleges. Nikki Lane, assistant principal of student wellbeing at East Coast College, East Anglia, has concerns about students spending their money on "loot boxes" - random rewards purchased within online games. Before opening a loot box, a player has no idea what it will contain, so is gambling on getting something worth their money.

Unhealthy pattern

While this practice might seem innocent enough, it can be the start of an unhealthy pattern that will escalate and lead to addiction. "It's gambling by stealth because none of them think they're gambling [when they] buy more loot boxes to get these rare items," says Lane.

One student told her that he sees his peers on forums spending between £7 and £40 a day on such items. "That's becoming an addictive behaviour," she says.

Warren Hughes is project manager of the Gambling Education Hub at Scottish youth work charity Fast Forward. He agrees that the "blurred line between gaming and gambling" should be a cause for concern for colleges. "We've seen a convergence of the two technologies," he explains. "But they're still separately regulated, and gaming isn't regulated anywhere near as much as gambling. However, what we're seeing in video games are lots of gambling-style products that look and feel like gambling but aren't necessarily risking money.

"Then, as young people are getting older, we're seeing more gambling games and online gambling becoming far more prevalent. A lot of products that are marketed online are incredibly addictive and have addictive characteristics as well."

Preventing addiction

So, what can be done to prevent young people from becoming long-term addicts? And what role can colleges play in keeping their students safe?

In terms of existing rules and regulations, there are already some changes afoot that could help matters. The government is considering tightening up controls around affordability, for one thing.

The Gambling Commission is currently carrying out a consultation that could see overall monthly online gambling losses capped at £100, unless a customer can prove they can afford to lose more.

Pitcher - who now hosts the All Bets Are Off podcast and is operations director at TalkGEN, a non-profit gambling-prevention organisation - is in favour of this cap. "We hear horror stories where kids are spinning roulette wheels at hundreds upon hundreds of pounds a go, and it's linked to their father's or mother's account," he says. "It's really, really scary just how simple that is. I was speaking to someone the other day who signed on and deposited £6,000 very quickly without any sort of verification at all," says Pitcher. "We don't know how old the person is, we don't know how much money they've got - it's ridiculous. The proposed affordability checks in the gambling review will help stem that."

Another avenue for tackling the issue among young people is restricting gambling advertising. A March 2020 report from Ipsos Mori on behalf of GambleAware found that only 4 per cent of 11- to 24-year-olds had not seen gambling advertising in the past month. On average, those in that age group had seen such advertising across more than six different forms of media over that period.

One way that colleges might be able to help, then, is by talking to students about the messages that they are being exposed to through advertising - and by making it clear to them about what constitutes gambling.

While participants in the Ipsos Mori survey gave many examples of gambling activities - from scratchcards and lotteries to online games and fruit machines - only a small number of participants (specifically those aged 13-19 and male) were aware of loot boxes and skin betting (the practice of gambling virtual items, or "skins", won within games through third-party websites to generate real money), and there was mixed opinion as to whether these constituted gambling.

However, loot boxes have now become a big enough problem to have reached the House of Lords. Its Gambling Committee is calling for them to be regulated under gambling laws, as it believes they are teaching kids to gamble.

The proposed changes to affordability controls and further regulation of in-game purchases have the potential to improve the situation. However, rather than waiting for the government and the gambling industry to take action, some colleges are already taking the matter into their own hands.

For instance, staff at East Coast College address the issue of gambling with students as part of the college's tutorial programme. They cover gaming, gambling and addiction, and have designed the sessions through discussion with students themselves around the apps and websites they are currently using.

Lane feels it is particularly important for any such provision to include information about loot boxes and skins. Because so many young people "don't see these activities as gambling", they often don't realise how much they may be spending, she says, and are "shocked and surprised when the amounts are added up".

The experts agree that colleges have a crucial role to play in educating young people about the dangers of gambling, and helping them to understand that they could be falling into addictive behaviours without even realising it.

So, what are the essentials that FE staff need to know when designing provision around this topic? Hughes says there are some key areas that any gambling curriculum should touch on.

1. Understand the science

"When we speak to college and university staff and teachers in schools, there's a gap in understanding the risk involved among gambling or gambling-style products," he says.

He explains the addictive nature of gambling with a simple example.

If you're given a coin, he says, your brain will feel happy and stimulated. But if it's a coin toss, where you only get the coin if it comes up heads, your brain will be engaged and stimulated to a much greater extent. "Uncertain rewards are an addictive characteristic and you find it in all forms of gambling," he says. "When you think of young people, their brains are still developing and, if they are exposed to these addictive products, then it becomes incredibly risky."

2. Talk about the signs

There are many indicators that someone could be experiencing an issue with gambling, Hughes continues, and it is helpful for staff and young people to be aware of them.

"A simple sign is if young people are finding it hard to stop. Similarly, if they find they're always thinking about gambling, or always talking about it, or even just money - that's something to look out for. And if they are neglecting their work or school, family or personal needs, or feeling anxious, worried or depressed around gambling and money, then that's something to explore."

Hughes says that if someone is being secretive or defensive about money, or about their gambling behaviours, that can often be a clue that all is not well.

"One of the biggest signs is chasing losses," he says. "If somebody is trying to win back money that they've lost already, it's a symptom of experiencing gambling harm and that's when they really need support."

3. Ask the three key questions

The Gambling Education Hub Project adopts a harm reduction approach, Hughes explains, so conversations can take place around safer ways to gamble rather than trying to forbid it entirely. (It's worth noting that while, generally, the minimum legal age for gambling in Great Britain is 18, you can take part in the National Lottery and buy scratchcards from the age of 16.)

For these honest conversations to happen, there are three important questions to ask young people about their gambling habits.

The first is about their motivation for gambling, says Hughes. "It should never be a way to make money… But if you're gambling for entertainment, that can be a safer reason," he explains.

"Never gamble if you're feeling angry or if you're drunk because these can affect your ability to make informed decisions."

Hughes also advises getting young people to think about the stake and whether it is within their means.

"Ask them, 'have you made sure that you've spent money on your food and your important outgoings before having money left to spend on gambling?' That's incredibly important to recognise as well, so that people are spending within their means."

The final question to ask is around frequency, and whether students are "neglecting other things they should spend more time on: friends, family, college work, job" in favour of gambling, says Hughes.

"Being able to provide sensible harm reduction advice to each three of those headings is a really good place to start."

Madeline Bennett is a freelance journalist

For advice, visit the Gambling Education Hub ( and the PSHE Association's gambling advice pages (

This article originally appeared in the 29 January 2021 issue under the headline "FE students are rolling the dice with their futures"

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