Gambling addiction may start as early as nine years old, study suggests

Researchers find technology such as smartphones has deepened secrecy around online betting

People with gambling addictions in Ireland may begin their habit as early as nine years old, a new study has suggested.

The work by UCD researchers also suggests that access to technology such as smartphones is deepening the secrecy in which gambling is sometimes carried out, as well as making problem gamblers more isolated.

Playing social roulette: the impact of gambling on individuals and society in Ireland, was commissioned by the Department of Social Protection and published by Tánaiste Joan Burton in Dublin on Wednesday. It was funded by the Irish Research Council.

The findings, presented by lead investigator Dr Crystal Fulton, were based on in-depth interviews with 22 gamblers and 22 of their social connections, such as family members or friends. Addiction counsellors and representatives of the gambling industry also participated in focus groups.


Mobile phones were noted by nearly all of the gamblers’ friends or family members as a “favourite tool” and they believed that advanced technologies had deepened the impact of gambling. “Technology fed impulsivity, because it supported continuous, anytime gambling,” the report says.

For families, the discovery of the excessive gambling was “devastating, and where technology deepened the secrecy of the gambling, the shock was increased”, the studysaid.

Dr Fulton said that when someone had a problem with gambling it was like “dropping a rock into a pool of water and watching the ripples”.

About half of the social connections interviewed were spouses of the gamblers in the study. Dr Fulton said in some cases their marriage was “on shaky ground” and she did not know if the marriages were still intact today.

Addiction service providers perceived new technologies as the domain of younger people, from teenagers through to adults in their 30s. Young men were viewed as more frequent gamblers using new technologies.

“In particular, underage teens were perceived to be gambling online, as were college students. Adults from their late 20s were believed to be more likely to gamble using slot machines or go to a bookmaker’s shop; middle-aged men and adults less than 50 years of age were perceived as gambling online via smart mobile phones. Only gamblers in their late 50s and upwards were viewed as traditional gamblers.

“Problem gamblers often started gambling as teenagers,” the report said. “Addiction service providers reported ages from nine years and up as common starting points for gambling.”

Gamblers and their friends and families as well as the addiction services said the two bodies that should be responsible for providing funding for treatment and prevention were the government and the gambling industry.

While gambling industry members had explained how they were developing responsible gambling initiatives in Ireland, the study found there was “conflicting evidence of responsible gambling measures and implementation”.

Ms Burton said the study was one of the first carried out in Ireland into the social impact of gambling and it would have a very important input into the formulation of Government policy.

She said she was anxious to implement the proposal for a social fund to help those who develop a gambling problem. Such a measure is proposed in the General Scheme for the Gambling Control Bill 2013, which provides for an updated and more comprehensive licensing and regulatory framework for gambling.

“The consequences for the spouses and the partners and the children of problem gamblers are enormous, because very often it leads the whole family into very difficult and serious debt situations for which there are no remedies, from the person who has the problem with gambling,” Ms Burton said.