Schoolchildren are being increasingly lured into gambling by on-line games and fruit machines, calls to a charity have revealed.
GamCare, which promotes responsible attitudes to gambling, says that three-quarters of pupils in England aged 12 to 15 are believed to have used slot machines, and around one in 20 has shown signs of gambling dependency.
The charity reports an increased number of calls over the past year from teachers and parents concerned about young teenagers. Of those involved in gambling, more than 85 per cent play on fruit machines, with others taking part in online gambling and buying lottery scratch-cards.
Studies into gambling among teenagers have shown a link with truancy and petty theft.
Andrew Poole, education officer for GamCare, said: "It is not like drink or drugs. There are not the same tell-tale signs when they arrive in the classroom. It's an invisible addiction."
The problem is significantly worse in seaside towns such as Blackpool, where fruit machines are readily available. Youth-offending teams in the town estimate that a fifth of the teenagers they work with are addicted.
Mr Poole fears that teenage gambling will become even more widespread because of the growing popularity of online betting.
"Young people can get access to the internet anywhere," he said. "We have had more than one phone call about teenagers who have spent thousands of pounds using their dad's credit card playing online blackjack."
Another concern is the Government's Gambling Bill. If approved by Parliament this autumn, it will lead to a near-doubling of the number of casinos in England from 122 to 241.
Sue Doughty, Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford, is calling for the Government to research the impact of gambling on secondary education and to consider making problem gambling a compulsory part of personal, social and health education.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said that the Gambling Bill contains safeguards for young people. Pubs and cafes which allow under-16s to gamble will risk prosecution.
Children, however, will still be allowed to use "category D" slot machines, which give out prizes of up to pound;5. The cost of using them will also be cut from 30p to a more pocket-money friendly 10p.
GamCare now plans to produce a video for PSHE lessons.
Matt Buck 31 www.gamcare.org.uk