Unregulated online gambling attracting children, harm prevention agency says

Unregulated online gambling attracting children, harm prevention agency says
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Children as young as 11 are racking up thousands of dollars in debt because of online gambling, according to a support service.

The head of Mapu Maia said it had had an increase in school counsellors and social workers reaching out with concerns of problem online gambling among secondary school students and even some children at intermediate.

The organisation works to prevent harm from online gambling and said more research and support was needed, with offshore gambling websites posing a particular risk.

Mapu Maia chief executive Pesio Ah-Honi said she was approached by distressed parents, whose child was up all night gambling online.

"Parents of a child who was in intermediate, so that would be around 11 to 12 years old, were beside themselves because he would sleep at school. He wasn't engaging in the family and he was completely disconnected," she said.

The boy had been using his mother's credit card to fuel his online gambling habits.

"We found out that he had clocked up on his mother's credit card over $16,000 because he was spending it on online gambling and he was up all night gambling," she said.

Ah-Honi said thousands of young people and their parents used Mapu Maia services but believed this was only the tip of the iceberg, because many people were too embarrassed to speak about the issue.

The service is designed to work with teens aged between 13 and 17 and has team of clinicians and health promoters, who run several youth-based gambling harm programmes across New Zealand.

Ah-Honi said sports betting sites were deliberately targeting young people.

"There are lots of adverts and marketing out there around online and betting on games, I believe the marketing to young people is really rife," she said.

She told Checkpoint social media was being used more frequently to draw in young people.

"The industry uses those platforms to specifically target young people. They're not using social media to target the older generation. We believe it's specifically targeted to young people when they use social media," she said.

She said she understood regulating online gambling sites would be a challenge for government due to many gambling websites being offshore, but said more education and support was needed.

Ah-Honi said problem gambling must also be brought into the conversation around youth mental health.

"It's moved slightly from your pokie machine pubs in the community to online places where it's not regulated. You can gamble away in the privacy of your own home, you can gamble underage," she said.

The Ministry of Health's Strategy to Prevent and Minimise Gambling Harm 2022/23 to 2024/25 says research into secondary school students gambling found that one in three had participated in gambling at some point in their lives.

The link between online gaming features and gambling also poses risks for youth problem gambling.

Aaron Drummond, a professor based in Tasmania and previous professor at the University of Waikato, said research conducted in New Zealand, Australia and the United States indicated people who showed signs of problem gambling were more likely to spend more money on online gaming features.

One of those problematic features is called a 'loot box'.

"What we know about them, it's quite concerning. People who have symptoms of problem gambling also tend to spend more on loot boxes, and recent evidence suggests people who engage with these loot boxes are at greater risk of migrating into conventional gambling behaviours later down the road," he said.

In Australia, online games that feature loot boxes must be rated M.

Drummond said on average people spend $10-12 a month on loot boxes, but some people have spent up to $1000 per month.

He said there had been an increase of the amount of loot boxes appearing in games.

"What we found that was interesting was income didn't affect how much people were spending on loot boxes. It was actually consistently the case that in every income bracket higher spenders were always people with the highest problem gambling symptoms, so loot boxes tend to disproportionately be attractive to people who have problems controlling their gambling behaviours," he said.

The Problem Gambling Foundation said they had noticed a rise in young clients under 25 seeking support for online gambling harm.

The current Gambling Act 2003 was outdated and did not include any mention of today's online gambling scene, they said.

In a statement to Checkpoint, the Department of Internal Affairs said "in March this year, Cabinet made an in-principle decision to regulate online casino gambling".

"The department is supporting the minister of internal affairs to prepare a report back to Cabinet on the high-level design of the regulatory system."

It said it is "mindful of the need to ensure operators have effective age verification systems, and tools to minimise harmful gambling will be a key component in the new regulations."