Gambling has become increasingly popular in the United States. In 2005, gambling revenues in the United States were $84.65 billion. Legalized gambling is available, in some form, in 48 of the 50 United States. The growth of gambling has lead to increased rates of disordered gambling and is a significant public health risk.
Both problem and pathological gambling are associated with a host of serious health and social consequences including suicide, work and educational disruption, criminal arrest, financial difficulties, and familial disruption. Problematic gambling has also been associated with alcohol and drug use, eating disorders, depression and anxiety. In one extreme case, a student at the University of Wisconsin murdered three roommates because he owed them thousands in gambling debts. The trio had helped him place bets with an offshore gambling company. He had lost $15,000 through gambling and withdrawn $72,000 from his bank account to support his habit before he committed the murders.
But do college students gamble more than the regular population? According to the Journal of Gambling Studies, 1.6% of the general population has engaged in pathological gambling with an additional 3.85% having experienced gambling related problems. College students appear to be at a greater risk, with 5% reporting pathological gambling and over 9% reporting gambling related problems.
Gambling at some level is the norm among college students. 91% of the men and 84% of the women surveyed reported gambling at least once during the prior 12 months. The most popular games were cards (40%), gambling machines (68%), and lottery (63%). Informal games were also popular, such as playing cards with friends (41%) and sports betting (37%). 12% of the students reported gambling during the past year at least weekly or daily. More men (19%) than women (5%) did so at this level. Betting on games of skill (such as an athletic contest) was the category most often played weekly/daily by college men (7%). For college women, lottery playing (2%) was the activity with the highest percentage of weekly/daily involvement.
It is obvious that gambling appears to be a common and benign experience for most college students. Some college students though gamble excessively and already show some of the signs of a gambling problem. Luckily, many young people “mature out” of risky behaviors and avoid serious problems with addictive-type behaviors.
Young people are exposed to gambling advertisements and media hype from the earliest of formative years. Tournaments are popular televised events. Celebrities can be seen on television playing poker. Social networking web sites like Facebook accept advertising for online gambling and even offer sign-up bonuses to students. One popular online gambling site advertises winning tuition money.
While the occasional game of Texas Hold Em in the dorm is a social event, online gambling is private and solitary. Online gambling only takes a credit card or debit card and an Internet connection. This pretty much puts every college student at risk. In practice, there is no age limitation on online gambling because there is no true age identification process. One study found that out of 37 randomly selected online gambling sites, a minor was able to register, play, and pay at 30 of them.
How many college students are actually logging on and playing for cash? While firm data is hard to come by, the numbers seem to be growing quickly. There are several indicators that would suggest it is a serious problem. In 2002 online gambling reported $4.1 billion in earnings. This rose to $5.5 billion in 2003. Financial transactions seem much less “real” over the computer. This often causes players to more easily deny the kind of financial troubles they can experience from gambling.
Schools are just beginning to recognize the severity of problem gambling. If is easy to figure out which students have drug or alcohol problems and intervene, but the kid who is gambling in his dorm room, at his computer can be an invisible problem. Colleges are beginning to educate students about gambling. Some are starting to treat gambling addiction. A few are blocking Internet gambling sites from university servers. Visa is helping by changing its policies by preventing users from placing online bets with its credit cards.
On a political level, both states and the federal government are starting to take note of the issue. In October 2001, anti-Internet gambling provisions were included in the Financial Anti-Terrorism Act. This act bans ban Internet gambling sites from accessing U.S. financial service systems to prevent the flow of money to and from terrorist organizations. No state explicitly allows online betting. Nevada, Louisiana, and Illinois, have banned online casinos. Attorneys General in New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri have already used their existing laws to shut down the few online gambling sites based in the United States. Now, essentially all online gambling sites are physically located off-shore so they can avoid American laws and regulations. Unfortunately, “physically located off-shore” can mean one server or a post office box in the Caribbean. Because these gambling sites are all located off-shore, no one really knows how large the online gambling industry is.