The rapid increase in the number of young people playing online computer games, often via social media sites, could lead to a surge in childhood gambling problems, a leading academic has warned.
Popular games are introducing teenagers to the excitement and rewards of gambling, even when they do not involve playing for money, according to Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in England.
Professor Griffiths, a world authority on gambling, believes that teachers have a vital role to play to ensure that children understand not only the potential rewards of gambling but also its risks. He wants to see gambling and gaming covered on the timetable during personal, social and health education (PSHE). Such lessons could explore the mechanics of gambling and the fact that there must always be more losers than winners, he said.
"I've always said that gambling and gaming is off the radar," Professor Griffiths told TES. "But teachers should start talking about these sorts of things. I don't want to come across as an omen of doom. There's nothing wrong with kids playing gambling-type games, but you have to accompany it with education."
Many social media websites offer opportunities to play online poker with virtual money. Similarly, cash-gambling sites offer free-play introductory games, and because no real money is involved there are no age restrictions.
"One of the biggest predictors of whether people become gamblers is the playing of gambling-type games on free-play sites," said Professor Griffiths, whose paper on adolescent gaming and gambling appears in the latest edition of the journal Education and Health.
"When you start winning, you start thinking that, if I was playing with real money, I could be doing quite well," he said. "Children who play these free games are more likely to gamble and more likely to develop problem gambling behaviours. These are gateway activities that can lead people down the gambling road."
Professor Griffiths also insists that there is a significant overlap between gambling and seemingly innocuous online games. Many games allow players to customise their avatars by spending money on virtual accessories or extra clothing. "It's a psychological masterstroke that people pay money to buy virtual items," he said. "The next step is for gambling firms to say, `Maybe you could win back some of the money you're spending.'"
The immensely popular game Candy Crush Saga, which has been downloaded more than 500 million times, gives players the option of paying money to access higher levels.
"It's a bit like the old drug-dealing analogy of giving a bit for free and hooking them in," Professor Griffiths said. "Games like Candy Crush have a moreishness quality, a bit like chocolate. You say you'll just have one chunk and you end up having the whole lot. So you say, `I'll just play for 15 minutes', and you end up still there four or five hours later."
In his paper for Education and Health, Professor Griffiths cites a 2011 study of more than 2,700 British secondary students, which found that 15 per cent had played free gambling games during the week prior to the survey. He writes that both gambling and social gaming offer intermittent, unpredictable rewards for users. The desire for such rewards draws the user into playing again and again.
Joe Hayman, chief executive of the UK's PSHE Association, agreed that gambling and internet gaming could form part of internet safety lessons. "The big challenge is that PSHE has limited curriculum time in schools," he said. "Teachers have to choose which topics to cover. What they should be doing is identifying issues that are most pertinent to the lives of the young people at their schools, because they're not going to be able to cover everything."
King, the company that makes Candy Crush Saga, insisted that its games were specifically targeted at adult women between the ages of 35 and 50, although the age range of players was currently widening. It added that it was possible to win the game without paying any money: at the moment, 40 per cent of players are paying users.
UK organisation Gamble Aware, which encourages responsible gambling, said that 2 per cent of people between the ages of 11 and 15 had trouble controlling their gambling behaviour. This was equivalent to 60,000 secondary students in Britain. "Worryingly, those who begin their gambling careers earlier in life are more likely to be problem gamblers in adulthood," the organisation stated.