A minor problem?


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GambleAware’s new advertising campaign addressing the dangers of problem gambling in young people has sparked debate amongst industry experts. Gambling Insider explores the magnitude of youth problem gambling, how the industry is presented in these “unsettling” adverts and what more can be done to protect young people from gambling addiction.

Every week the media seems to carry news focusing on underage or youth gambling, and the dangers thereof. GambleAware recently teamed up with 18 Feet & Rising to release a new TV campaign – “Voices” – which highlights the addictive nature of gaming to children and young adults. The two adverts, entitled “Online” and “Machine” after the gaming platforms featured, depicts a man using emotional manipulation and marketing language associated with gambling advertisements to intimidate and lure in vulnerable young people. The malevolent man clearly represents the temptation of everyday gambling machines in the mind of young gambling addicts.

Dr Jane Rigbye, Chartered Psychologist and Director of Commissioning at GambleAware has been working in the area of treatment and mitigation of gambling problems for over a decade. She explains the overall goal of GambleAware and its associates: “We are working towards increasing the recognition of problem gambling as a public health issue. Part of that is around raising awareness amongst vulnerable groups, such as young people, not only of the risks involved in gambling, but also how and where to get help and support.”

Rigbye also describes how GambleAware’s advertising campaign is intended to raise awareness of problem gambling in young people: “The adverts are designed to be immediately engaging. They have been made to attract the curiosity of the viewer and keep them interested until the very end. The style of the adverts encourages the viewer to consider the subject matter, prompting the consideration that the videos might be about other forms of addiction such as alcohol or drugs. This association will help position problem gambling in the same hierarchy as other more talked about addictions.

“The adverts were tested with focus groups of 15-24 year olds as well as current treatment providers. Each group felt it was justified for a charity to show hard-hitting, and at times shocking, adverts if it meant the message was getting across to those at risk.

“It’s early days, but we have conducted extensive research to establish a baseline understanding of awareness in the targeted regions (Northwest and Northeast of England) and a separate control region (Midlands), which will allow us to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.”

According to studies conducted by GambleAware, people between the ages of 15-24 are the most vulnerable to problem gambling, which is what inspired the charity to create these advertisements: “We know that the prevalence of problem gambling in young people is twice the rate of that found in adults. This probably reflects the fact that young people, typically males, are exploring risky behaviour - higher car insurance rates for young people is indicative of this same phenomenon - but that for differing reasons such as new responsibilities, many young people become more risk-averse as they develop into adulthood.

“However, we know also that life-time ‘problem gamblers’ will most likely have begun their gambling at a young age, often influenced by a member of their family. In a world in which young people are growing up with the opportunity and promotion of gambling being significantly greater than ever before, particularly via the internet, we are concerned what the consequences may be for today’s young people as tomorrow’s adults and parents.”

The advertisements, however, could be somewhat unsettling to viewers, arguably putting the gambling industry in a less than positive light. “The strapline for GambleAware’s new “Voices” advertising campaign should really be “Be Gamble Afraid” given how it portrays gambling,” states Lorien Pilling, Director at Global Betting and Gaming Consultants.

Keith McDonnell, iGaming Consultant at KM iGaming, has similarly noted that the advertisements “follow the same trodden path as campaigns directed at smokers and drink drivers: the shock factor.”

Pilling disputes the validity of GambleAware’s reasoning for targeting minors, and challenges the accuracy of the statistics on which the campaign is based: “The campaign is aimed at a younger audience (15-24 years), and GambleAware justifies this by citing the Gambling Commission’s data, which apparently showed this group was most at risk of problem gambling.

“The group most “at risk”, however, actually seems to be the 25-34 year old group, based on the Commission’s data. But the survey which created all this data was based on a mini-screen of just three questions. One of these questions is “have people criticised your betting or told you that you have a gambling problem? The “people” in this question may have no expertise to criticise gambling behaviour or to assess problem gambling. Nevertheless, if the respondent answers “most of the time” or “almost always” they will score two or three points and be classed as a “moderate risk gambler”.

If they then score one more point on either of the other two questions they will have the 4+ points necessary to be classed as a problem gambler. “As for the survey itself, the Commission states: “Due to the small base sizes presented by the telephone survey, the mini-screen should not be considered the Commission’s comprehensive estimate of problem gambling rates in Great Britain.” It could be higher or it could be lower. The report also says “it is important to note that due to the base sizes involved the estimates below are subject to some volatility, and as such, trend data should be treated with caution as none of the changes are statistically significant at the 95% level”. Given the caveats to the data, is it really possible to draw the firm conclusion that younger people are “most at risk” of having gambling problems?”

Pilling goes on to state his view that these adverts lack relatability and reliability: “These adverts are being shown in cinemas and then targeting the North East and North West of the UK. Given that only 0.7% of the population has a gambling problem, the vast majority of the audience will not relate to the “voices in the head” that the adverts claim to depict. Instead they will just see an overtly negative portrayal of gambling, anthropomorphising a gaming machine and a laptop into a malevolent man trying to emotionally manipulate people. This is hardly a depiction of gambling that is widely held in the UK population.”

However, Rigbye retaliates: “The advertisements we are piloting are not directed at established problem gamblers but rather at those who are still forming their relationship with gambling. The message is be aware that gambling is a risky activity, and avoid becoming a problem gambler.”

Futhermore, Rigbye asserts: “These adverts are about problem gambling, not gambling in general. We carefully tested them before launching the larger pilot and the target audiencewere very clear that they understood the adverts to be about problem gamblers. With over £120m of advertising promoting gambling, we don’t expect this modest campaign to change attitudes about gambling as whole – but we do intend for it to raise awareness of the risks of gambling-related harm and make sure people affected by it know where to go for help.”

McDonnell also feels that the prolific gambling advertisements on television should be countered by ads warning young people of its dangers: “This campaign is designed to focus on the potential for damage within the gambling industry. We have plenty of campaigns telling us about the fun aspects of gambling, most of which are bang on. The reigns sometimes need to be put more firmly on the marketing departments to ensure the message they put out is not one that specifically appeals to the young. Think of the themes, the characters used, the basic message. In that regard a little more can be done, but again, we need to strike the balance as gambling is a form of entertainment enjoyed responsibly by the vast majority of people. The purpose of this campaign is to point out that there is a negative side and that everyone needs to be aware so they can either continue to gamble responsibly or look out for signs in others. I believe in that regard it serves its purpose.”

Pilling, however, contests that the frequency of advertisements promoting gambling should not warrant the industry being portrayed so negatively: “GambleAware said it wanted the adverts to redress the balance with gambling adverts, but it should not really be the aim of such charities to create negative portrayals of gambling simply to even the score Gambling operators are allowed to advertise their services in the UK and are subject to the relevant rules and regulations that define how gambling can and cannot be portrayed. Adverts also carry responsible gambling messages and operators fund charities like GambleAware, which has presumably used some of the operators’ money to create these adverts.”

Paul Sculpher, Operations Director at Victoria Gate Casino in Leeds, highlighted that operators do not bury their heads in the sand with regards to the threat of problem gambling among players of all ages. “As a gambling operator, there’s no point denying that for a tiny proportion of people, gambling can be deeply detrimental to their state of mind and have serious consequences if not controlled. I’ve personally been involved in plenty of interactions during my casino career with people who are having difficulty controlling their gambling, and generally speaking these interactions are deeply uncomfortable for all concerned – nobody takes their responsibility lightly.

“Even if we were to be completely heartless and look at problem gambling in purely financial terms (and none of us do this in practice – we’ve all got to sleep at night) there is a common objective in trying to control and limit problem gambling. The negative PR consequences of turning a blind eye far outweigh the earnings an operator might make from people with a genuine problem, and with that backed up by the moral imperative, we all have a responsibility, both legal and ethical, to help people who are in trouble.

“It’s noticeable in GambleAware’s adverts, which are somewhat unsettling, that the actors used are relatively young people. It’s not my place to comment on whether young people are particularly at risk of problem gambling, but what is clear is that the opportunities to gamble are immense at all age ranges, with remote gambling meaning the opportunities to interact with gamblers are more limited than in an offline environment.”

Sculpher also notes that casino operators have taken a huge step to limit underage and problem gambling with SENSE, the national self exclusion scheme which allows vulnerable consumers to exclude themselves from all local betting sites. However, this scheme of course does not apply to those drawn in by online betting services – a platform which is particularly accessible to the younger generation.

McDonnell also points out that it is indeed the younger player’s fluency with technology that makes it easy for them to sidestep the inadequate security measures of betting sites. This coupled with the abundance of gambling advertisements on television and online, all of which are intended to catch the eye of younger generations (exclusively the older Millennial demographic), encourages underage players to gamble online: “Gambling Operators put in place a number of strict policies and procedures to ensure protection for the young, but there is no doubt that advertising, and the wider media and movie environments, can glamourise the activity in a way that appeals to the younger generation. Social media is a great thing but much like the internet can be a terrible influence if used in the wrong way.”

So if operators need to amend the way their advertisements aggrandise gambling, what more can be done to protect young people from problem gambling? “Responsibility starts with parents and schools to ensure the young are educated enough to know right from wrong, and make decisions that will inevitably come their way,” McDonnell argues. “That does not, of course, divest the absolute responsibility gambling operators have to put thorough protection measures in place. Parents and schools provide the education, operators and industry provide the safety net. This is something the industry has become a lot better at, and not just for the young, but for the vulnerable in general.”

Sculpher agrees that education is an extremely important part of tackling problem gambling in young players, but suggests that sheltering children from gambling actually hinders their education: “What is immensely frustrating from a personal perspective is the media seizing on any attempt to provide education about gambling to young people as “teaching kids how to play roulette”. That’s not helpful.” The stigma surrounding gambling has tended to encourage parents, guardians and educators to shield children from gambling altogether. Perhaps introducing children to gambling in a way that makes them aware of the potential negative consequences is a method that could be tested by schools and parents to make children more aware of its potential dangers. However, it is unlikely that this open attitude to gambling will be readily adopted in the near future.
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