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Online gambling and young people: a growing concern

Online gambling through in-app game purchases appears to be a growing problem among teenagers and young people. Here's what parents should know. By Gary Crossing

In April 2016, Omair Abbas, an 18-year-old from Cardiff, took his own life after gambling £5,000 on online betting sites. At the inquest into the teenager’s death in June, the coroner raised concern over the ease with which young people can access online gambling.

Gambling, particularly online, appears to be a growing problem among young people.

A recent study by the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs found that, while drinking and smoking amongst 15-16-year-olds are showing signs of decline, there are concerns over new addictive behaviours, such as excessive internet use, online gaming and gambling.

A study by the UK Gambling Commission, to be published in October, found that 16% of children aged 11 – 15 had gambled in the past seven days, with 2% saying they had gambled online. Reflected across the entire population, that would be 70,000 children.

Online gambling can involve placing bets on football matches, horse racing, cricket matches, dog racing and more, as you would at a high street bookmaker. It can also involve online casinos and poker sites.

It's a skin thing

One of the areas raising most concern in relation to teenagers and young adults though is the use  of 'skins' to gamble on esports (electronic sports) tournaments and other online games of chance like coin toss games or roulette.

Skins are in-game add-ons that can be bought for your game character, such as weapons and accessories, in popular titles such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2).

Because of the rarity of some skins, their value can sometimes run to hundreds or even thousands of pounds. Skins have effectively become currency that players can collect, trade, buy and sell.

Like chips in a casino, some websites allow skins to be used to bet instead of cash. Because players can then convert these back into cash, betting with skins is essentially the same as using real money.

Steam, the largest online gaming platform in the world is owned by Valve, the US games developer who makes CS:GO.

Some sites on Steam, including CS:GO Lotto and CS:GO Lounge, let players put skins into an online account, play games to win more skins, and then trade or sell the combined total of skins for cash.

According to a report in the Daily Dot, CS:GO Lounge handled more than a $1billion worth of bets, before ending its skin gambling operation in August.

CS:GO has a PEGI 18 rating. The legal minimum age for gambling in the UK is 18, with the exception of the National Lottery and scratch cards which you have to be 16 to take part in. There is evidence, however, that underage children are playing the game and making bets.

In August, Parent Zone made a submission to House of Lords Select Committee, Children and the Internet. Our CEO, Vicki Shotbolt, pointed out that:

‘The online gaming platform Steam has an age rating of 13. It allows players to enjoy an enormous range of online games and buy virtual assets including ‘skins’ for their virtual weapons. Steam links to ‘Skin Gambling’ sites like CSGOLotto which allow young people to gamble with these virtual assets. The gaming platform that facilitates this activity requires users to confirm they are 13 or older. It is clearly and unequivocally facilitating underage gambling with virtual assets that can cost up to thousands of pounds.

‘These services appear to be operating with impunity – or certainly without the scrutiny they deserve.’

Vicki gives evidence at the House of Lords

No age limit

We spoke to Steven (name changed) who has just turned 18. He explained to us how simple the process is.

‘I know quite a few people betting online... horse racing, football, tennis was most popular. The people I know bet with quite small amounts so although most of them did lose, it was rarely more than £5-£10.

‘It's the same appeal as any gambling, the possibility of winning big and the adrenaline rush of putting your own skins on the line. You can sell skins for cash as well so you have the chance to win thousands of pounds which I'm sure attracts some people.

 ‘I have used Steam. I started when I was about 16. The betting sites link to the steam accounts so people can use their own cards or their parents’ cards on that. Obviously you’re not gambling with money technically, so I don’t think these sites need a credit card, they just need access to the users’ skins.

‘You can gamble skins as long as you have a Steam account and there’s no age limit on having a steam account so there’s no process that stops underage gambling.’

Many legal bookmakers are now taking bets on the outcome of eSports gaming, but their age verification process means that underage skins gambling is minimised.

But it is theappearance of the unregulated skins betting sites which have little or no age verification in place, that is increasingly causing concern.

'Unlicensed websites offering skins betting can pop up at any time. Mums and dads should be aware of this,’ says Tim Miller, executive director of the UK Gambling Commission.

'They should also be aware that there are a lot of computer games out there which have in-game currencies that could be exploited by those wishing to offer illegal gambling.

'We are very concerned about these types of websites because they represent a hidden form of gambling – parents could be giving money to their child thinking that they are simply playing a computer game when in fact they are gambling. We want to raise awareness of this so that parents can feel confident in keeping their children safe from gambling.' [You can read the full interview with Tim Miller here.]

YouTube scandals

Sometimes, people who post skin betting videos on YouTube aren’t who they seem to be. In July 2016, two YouTube gamers, Trevor Martin and Tom Cassell, known online as TmarTn and Syndicate Project, were criticised after they uploaded videos in which they appeared to win big prizes playing CS:GO Lotto – without disclosing that they owned the site.

This high-profile case was one of the factors that prompted the UK Gambling Commission to publish a new discussion paper in August, Virtual currencies, eSports and social  gaming. The paper outlines the Commission’s concerns about eSports betting, including whether new legislation is needed to tighten up its legal status and whether it can be regulated in the same way as traditional betting. It said: ‘Taking action against anyone offering facilities for gambling to children and young people is a particularly high priority.’

In February 2017, YouTuber Craig Douglas and business partner Dylan Rigby were fined a total of £265,000 for promoting an online Fifa gambling ring to children.

Douglas, known by the YouTube alias NepentheZ, promoted the FutGalaxy social gaming website to his 1.3m YouTube followers.

The site, which let players transfer virtual currency out of the Fifa 17 video game, and use it to bet on real-life football games, had no age restrictions and allowed minors to use a credit card to place bets in a virtual currency earned on Fifa.

There was no official link between FutGalaxy.com and either FIFA or EA Sports.

A court hearing was told that the unregulated site generated pre-tax profit of about £96,000 between July 2015 and February 2016. One 14-year-old boy lost £586 in a day.

Douglas admitted a charge of being an officer of a firm that provided facilities for gambling without an operating licence, and a further offence relating to the advertising of unlawful gambling.

Rigby pleaded guilty to two charges connected to the provision of facilities for gambling, and a third offence linked to advertising illegal gambling.

It was the first time the UK's Gambling Commission had prosecuted people for running an unlicensed gambling website connected to a video game.

Sarah Harrison, Gambling Commission CEO, said: “This was one of the most serious cases that has been investigated and prosecuted by the Commission. Its gravity is reflected in the significant financial penalties imposed by the Judge. The defendants knew that the site was used by children and that their conduct was illegal but they turned a blind eye in order to achieve substantial profits. The effect on children of online gambling was rightly described by the Court as ‘horrific’ and ‘serious’.

Steam vs skins

In July this year, Valve threatened to shut down 23 sites on Steam that did not stop players using skins to gamble. The corporation issued the ‘cease and desist’ notices after it faced legal cases alleging that it helped the sites to run gambling operations.

The complainants said Valve had not done enough to police the marketplace on the Steam service to stop the gambling.

In a statement on the Steam site on 13 July, Erik Johnson, ‘one of Valve’s business development authorities’, said of the skin gambling sites: 'We’d like to clarify that we have no business relationships with any of these sites. We have never received any revenue from them. And Steam does not have a system for turning in-game items into real world currency.'

Risk factors of online gambling

  • Private, unlimited access to the internet
  • Having immediate family members who gamble
  • Starting to gamble at an early age
  • Frequent use of 'free-to-play' areas on gambling websites which can lead to real gambling
  • Experiencing a big win shortly after starting to play
  • Boredom/loneliness
  • Strong sensation-seeking tendencies
  • A tendency to be impulsive

Signs that your child may have a problem with gambling

  • Has your child asked to borrow large amounts of money?
  • Have you experienced money or items missing from your home? Do you suspect your child might be stealing?
  • Does your child have more money or unexplained money, or does your child spend money beyond his/her apparent means?
  • Does your child withdraw from family activities or other leisure activities?
  • Are they absent from or do they have poor concentration/performance at school, college or university etc.
  • Are you concerned about the amount of time your child spends on the computer, on mobile devices, watching sports, playing cards etc?
  • Are you aware of bets your child is making with friends or classmates?
  • Have you noticed changes in your child’s personality, including mood swings?
  • Has your child become secretive?
  • Does your child lie about money or about gambling acitivities?

Advice for Parents of teen gamblers

  • Set a good example - if you do not want your children to gamble, don’t do so yourself.
  • Find out as much as you can about skins gambling and the various sites.
  • Talk to your child about the dangers of online gambling and why it is especially inappropriate for someone of his or her age.
  • If you suspect your child has a gambling problem contact an organisation specialising in young people and gambling, or addiction.

Find out more

What is skin gambling and why is it so popular? Click here.

Check out our gambling glossary here.

BigDeal is a gambling information and advice site aimed at young people: www.bigdeal.org.uk.

 

Article updated 31 March 2017

Image: Parent Zone