On a losing streak

9th February 1996 at 00:00
ADOLESCENT GAMBLING By Mark Griffiths Routledge Pounds 14.99. Hannah Steinberg on teenagers addicted to gambling.

This book is about young fruit machine junkies, a small and neglected but growing minority.

They are graphically described in case histories told by the author and other psychologists, by mothers and by the young people themselves. Their symptoms strikingly resemble those of young drug addicts - alienation from home, school and friends, lying, stealing, unexplained and sometimes prolonged absences, angry rebuffing of any attempts to probe or to help, and other self-destructive behaviour. It is a gloomy picture, though with some glimpses of hope.

These young, usually male, fruit machine addicts often come from unsettled and unstimulating backgrounds and take up fruit machines because they have nothing better to do. Sometimes their fathers introduce them to playing but they come to regard it as an essentially non-social activity. It is the only commercial form of gambling allowed in the UK for the under 18s. The mean starting age has been reported to be 10 to 11 years, and there is some evidence of greater fruit machine playing the more economically and socially deprived the player: the machine may become an "electronic friend". Estimates of the incidence of compulsive playing vary widely, but it is likely that it is greater than official statistics suggest.

Probably one in six players become pathologically addicted. But why the other five do not is not so easy to pin down, especially since research is relatively sparse. The author of Adolescent Gambling draws particularly on his own observations as an inconspicuous monitor in amusement arcades in towns and holiday resorts in South-West England. He also reports results of postal questionnaires sent to current and reformed adolescent fruit machine addicts (which brought in a sample of only 19, aged 16 to 25) and of other enquiries, for example, imaginative real life experiments which made possible comparisons between non-regular, regular and pathological gamblers. The "near miss" turned out to be crucial for explaining persistent gambling despite constant losses.

The main attraction of fruit machines for the youngsters seemed to be excitement and "skill", not necessarily for the gain of money, but for prolonging the playing experience, with its occasional "highs": they may play with money rather than for it. The machines become personalised, and details of their elaborate glittering lights, music and other gimmicks were highly important, as sometimes was becoming "Arcade King" among a peer group. Pathologically gambling youngsters were often depressed, and a big win early in their gambling career could be a powerful reinforcement, with its false optimism about the chances of success.

The example of adults gambling may also be partly to blame, and so may seeing advertisements, and betting shops, and above all, easy access to fruit machines in arcades and other places. The gambling industry skilfully exploits this young but potentially lucrative market. Few fruit machine addicts were over 25, but some may then graduate to horses and other adult betting pursuits.

Intervention and treatment, the author suggests should, as with most forms of addiction, be directed to viable substitutes, perhaps activities which involve similar risks and excitement - hardly easy. This should be combined with other social improvements, including self-help groups, psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, relaxation training, Gamblers Anonymous and even appropriate drug treatment.

The author argues, quite rightly, that concepts of addictive or compulsive behaviour should not be limited to drugs, and that gambling like over-eating and exercise, can become a genuine addiction with euphoria, compulsion, withdrawal symptoms, tolerance and relapse. Even physiological correlates such as endorphins (the body's own morphine-like substances which are released into the blood stream by various forms of stress) are probably involved.

The text is well put together and supplemented by neat appendices, indexes and full references. It may not manage to give conclusive answers to the two key questions: "Why does only a relatively small proportion of adolescents become hooked on fruit machines"? and "What is best done about those that are"? But at the very least it highlights the problem soberly, provides an up-to-date overview and points the way to more research and better dissemination of its results.

Hannah Steinberg is visiting professor of psychology, Middlesex University

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