Monday, February 25, 2008

March Madness

Jeffrey Derevenksy, Ph.D. and Dr. Rina Gupta, Ph.D.

Here’s a quiz. See if you can identify the underlying theme for each of these events: a) The Super Bowl, b) The World Series, c) The Stanley Cup, d) Kentucky Derby and e) March Madness. If you answered they’re all sports events and American icons you are absolutely correct.

Now see if you can identify the sports activity associated with each event. If you answered a) N.F.L. Football, b) Major League Baseball, c) National Hockey League, d) the Grand Prix of horse racing, and e) NCAA Collegiate Basketball Tournament you are correct again. Each event has its own history, mystique, and dramas associated with it. And each has captivated the imagination of generations of children, adolescents, and adults.

March Madness, often referred to as March Mayhem, has its own special place among American youth and collegiate alumni. For three weekends in March, America becomes captivated by the NCAA college basketball postseason tournament. Celebrating its sixtieth year, the NCAA championship journey has slowly evolved. It has helped etch their own memorable moments for generations of fans, players, coaches, and alumni.

The fanfare attributed to March Madness is accelerated as millions of alumni all across the United States dust off their old school sweaters and caps, wave their pennants, and attempt to relive their youth by returning to those good old college days. The exhilaration, anticipation, and frenzy of March Madness is further heightened not only by collegiate or alumni pride but also by the vast sums of money being wagered on these events.

Like many other sporting events, the NCAA tournament generates enormous interest amongst youth and adult males trying to predict the Final Four and ultimately #1. And to make this even more interesting, millions of dollars are wagered on the outcome of each game.

Although problem gambling has been primarily thought of as an adult behavior, more recent research has suggested that it remains a popular activity amongst children and adolescents. An alarmingly high percentage of children and adolescents are engaged in gambling activities. In particular, illegal sports gambling on college campuses throughout North America has become a significant problem. Prevalence studies conducted over the past decade suggests that gambling activities remain particularly attractive to today's youth and its popularity is on the rise amongst children, adolescents and young adults.

Prevalence studies conducted in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Europe, and in Australia all confirm the rising prevalence rates of youth involvement in both legal and illegal forms of gambling. Estimates are that between 4-8% of adolescents presently have serious gambling problems with another 10-14% of adolescents at-risk for developing a serious gambling problem. Our recent data suggests that while 55% of adolescents are casual or recreational gamblers, 13% have some gambling related problems, and 4-6 % have a serious problem. Yet, for most parents and teens, gambling is viewed as an innocuous behavior with few negative consequences.

Retrospective studies have indicated that adult problem gamblers report the onset of their pathological behaviors to have begun quite early, often beginning between the ages of 10-19. A large-scale study of adolescents in Alberta, Canada found that most problem gamblers began gambling, on average, around the age of 10 with similar results being found in our study of high school adolescents and young adults in Quebec.

Problematic gambling among adolescents have been shown to result in increased delinquency and crime, the disruption of relationships, and negatively affects overall school performance and work activities. While these youth present themselves differently from adults, they nevertheless have similar characteristics. These adolescents have a preoccupation with gambling, resulting in poor school performance, strained parental and peer relationships, and an increase in antisocial behavior in order to maintain their gambling behavior.

Contrary to public opinion, our research and clinical work suggests money is not the predominant reason why adolescents engage in these behaviors. Rather, it appears as though money is used as a vehicle that enables them to continue playing. Through play, either with video poker machines, sports betting, cards, or other forms of gambling, these adolescents exhibit a number of dissociative behaviors; escaping into another world, often with altered egos. When playing, adolescents with serious gambling problems report nothing else matters and all their problems disappear. Betting on the outcome of a sports event makes the adrenalin flow, the heart rate increase, and the excitement intensify.

For an adolescent with a gambling problem, a good day is when the money he or she has lasts all day before their pockets are empty. A bad day is when the same amount of money lasts for only a half an hour. The initial claim is they gamble to make money. However, in speaking with these young gamblers, one quickly realizes money won is simply used as a means to access further gambling opportunities.

There is a progression that can often be seen with respect to amounts of money wagered. When the gambling first starts, betting $20 on the outcome of a sports event is exciting and the amount bet is enough to generate a thrill, regardless of whether they win or lose. What quickly happens is that the $20 wager quickly escalates, first to a $100, and then a $500 wager in order to maintain the same level of excitement and thrill. This is referred to as a form of tolerance or habituation, similar to the tolerance seen among drug and alcohol users who need to increase the dosage and/or frequency of use in order to maintain the desired effect.

It is not uncommon for an adolescent or college student to bet upwards of $1500 on a game, if they are problem gamblers. Often bets are placed through on-campus bookmakers who extend credit. Winnings are re-invested into other gambling opportunities. Losses are perceived as a mere detour to the inevitable win.

When the NCAA tournament is over, the NBA finals approach. For the sports enthusiast, there is always some sports event to watch, and more importantly, some event on television to wager on. Individuals with severe gambling problems often rely on people around them (family and friends) to help absorb their losses. It is a dangerous spiral to fall into, and even more difficult to stop.

For the past eight years we have been actively engaged in a program of research designed to help identify the risk factors associated with gambling problems among youth, to examine the antecedents of the problem, and to identify effective strategies for the prevention and treatment of youth with serious gambling problems.

Despite some conflicting findings, there appears to be an overall consensus:


gambling is more popular amongst males than females

probable/pathological gamblers are greater risk takers

adolescent prevalence rates of problem gamblers are 2-4 times that of adults

adolescents with problem/pathological gambling behaviors have lower self- esteem, higher rates of depression, dissociate more frequently when gambling, and are at increased risk for the development of an addiction or polyaddictions.

Research on personality traits reveals adolescent pathological gamblers are more excitable, extroverted, anxious, tend to have difficulty conforming to societal norms, and experience difficulties with self-discipline.

Problematic gambling during adolescence remains a growing social problem with serious psychological, educational, sociological and economic implications. Pathological gambling has been shown to result in increased delinquency and crime, antisocial behavior, the disruption of relationships, and negatively affects overall school performance and work activities. Given there are frequently few observable signs of gambling dependence among children and adolescents, such problems have gone relatively undetected compared to other forms of addiction (e.g., substance and alcohol abuse). The devastating impact to the individual and entire family when a member has an addictive disorder has been well documented.

While occasional gambling should not necessarily be considered problematic, the probability of children and adolescents becoming problem or pathological gamblers or engaging in other risk-taking and/or antisocial behaviors remains worrisome. Given there are frequently few observable signs of gambling dependence amongst children and adolescents, and the paucity of research in the area, such problems have gone relatively unnoticed compared to other forms of addiction.

Today, children and adolescents are informed via their school system about the dangers inherent in smoking, alcohol, and drug consumption. None, however, are informed as to the addictive qualities potentially inherent in gambling activities. Adolescents only become cognizant of this after either they or their friends develop problematic gambling behaviors. It is believed that the general acceptance of gambling and this lack of public awareness is contributing to the increasing number of children and adolescents who are currently struggling with gambling problems.

Gambling opportunities, venues and outlets continue to grow with governments sanctioning and encouraging participation in spite of the rising personal and social costs. While most gambling is illegal for minors, there is clear evidence underage youth continue to actively participate in these activities with many reporting engaging in this behavior with family members. This gambling behavior likely continues into young adult hood, as is evidenced by the growing numbers of students on college campuses who are compulsive gamblers. Sports betting has become particularly problematic among these students.

Gambling amongst our youth remains an important area in need of greater public awareness, more basic and applied research, and responsible social policy.

For parents who have sent their children off to college, or who are preparing to do so, a few words of advice. Talk to them about how gambling can become an addictive behavior, discuss how best to set limits on such activities, and emphasize the value of moderation. While your children may already understand the risks of alcohol and drug use, the risks of problem gambling are probably unknown to them. When constructing a budget for their living expenses, emphasize that gambling expenses should not be part of such a budget. Monitor how your children spend their budgeted allowances that you send. Do not provide them with excessive amounts of money if you suspect that they are the likely to succumb to the lure and glamour of gambling. Access to extra money is a very big factor in the development of serious gambling problems.

Unfortunately, our children are the first generation to live their entire lives in which gambling is not only legal but often sanctioned and endorsed by the state.

Lets do our part in preventing this by communicating the potential dangers, teaching them by example, by supporting and encouraging increased research efforts, public awareness and the development of thoughtful social policy.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Derevensky is a child psychologist; Professor, and Director of the School/Applied Child Psychology Program in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology; and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University.

Rina Gupta, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and Assistant Professor (part-time), in the School / Applied Child Psychology program at McGill University. She has a private practice, where she works with parents and children dealing with emotional, learning, and behavior problems. She is a frequent lecturer to parent groups and a contributor to professional journals.

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