By Mark Alden
Gambling has always been a part of the social scene for American kids. But with the explosion in popularity of poker, live and on the Internet, more young people are now getting into serious trouble with gambling. Indeed, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, college-age students, those between the ages of 18 and 24, are showing the highest rates of gambling addictions.
Young people are far more vulnerable than adults to developing a gambling addiction. This is partly because kids are naturally drawn to all kinds of risky activities during adolescence like sex, drinking and driving too fast. Gambling is no different.
But unlike with drugs or alcohol, most young people have no idea that they're at any kind of risk of becoming addicted to gambling. They see it as a fun and glamorous activity. Even more worryingly, most parents are also unaware of the dangers gambling can pose to their children. In fact, many parents regard gambling as a harmless pastime and actually encourage their kids to while away their leisure time playing cards.
Ryan is a 23-year-old recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. He's also a compulsive gambler who's now enrolled in Gamblers Anonymous, having run up $20,000 in debt from Internet gambling while at college.
"The friends in my social sphere, we all played cards together," says Ryan. "In terms of total percentage of my high school, I would say it would definitely be over 50 percent. But it was a social activity that was accepted by our parents as something, they're under the same roof, we can keep an eye on them."
Ryan's mom and dad readily admit that they opened their doors to Ryan's schoolmates for poker nights, delighted that their son was socializing in the apparent safety of their own home.
"It was good to know they were here," says Ryan's mother. "We could see what they were doing. They were a couple of steps away. They're right in the dining room, I'm in the kitchen and they're having a good time."
Ryan's father also felt secure about his son's poker playing.
"It was a false sense of security, knowing where all your kids are," he says. "They'd come around the dining room table - six, eight, ten kids on a Friday or Saturday night. They were in clear sight. They're not drinking or smoking dope. It's point blank, they're in front of us.
Jeff Derevensky is director of the International Center for Youth Gambling in Montreal, the world's leading research and treatment center for adolescent gambling. He believes parents need to come to grips with the potential dangers of gambling.
"Many parents are deathly afraid that their children will get involved in drugs [or] alcohol," says Derevensky, "and as a result, it's very safe and inviting to have all the kids in your basement, in your home playing cards for money, because at least we know where they are and they're not out doing some other kind of nefarious activity. And the general perception is that there's nothing wrong with gambling."
But Ryan's parents soon discovered that there was something very wrong with their son's gambling habits. Ryan's dad recalls the night his son confessed his addiction.
"I was working midnights that night, and he called me on my cell phone at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. He was in tears like, 'I gotta talk to you dad.' He was crying and I woke up completely mentally then from thinking it was just a normal phone call. He very rarely shows tears to me. And I said, 'Go ahead Ryan, tell me. I'll take care of it.' He shocked me in a way. He said, 'I'm having a problem. I'm very deeply in debt and I owe money.' I thought he said $1,800 but he said, 'No dad, it's $18,000.' He came home two days later and we had the bills straightened out in front of me. I actually had to take a 4 percent loan. I saw 4 percent as better than paying [Ryan's] 25 percent interest. It was bringing everything down."
Ryan's mother remembers the shock and disbelief at discovering how destructive her son's gambling had become.
"I remember the three of us were there and he came in the room and John said to him, 'You're gambling, right?' I didn't believe it. I said to him, 'Ryan, you're not gambling are you?' and he started to break down and said, 'yes.' I couldn't believe it, and he confessed. I was shocked. I didn't have a clue, not a clue. I was totally shocked and I was very disappointed. This is money that he's going to pay back. But still, this is something that's going to affect him for the rest of his life."
Gambling is very much a hidden addiction. Unlike drinking or taking drugs, there are very few warning signs that parents can pick up on. Ryan's mother and father saw nothing abnormal in their son's behavior, which is why they didn't even think about the possible dangers of gambling.
"I didn't realize it was a disease because you don't really see it," says Ryan's mom. "I mean, you look at him and you can't tell he's a gambler. He looks fine. He's a handsome guy, polite. It's something the gambler hides."
"You cannot tell a gambler," says Ryan's father. "There's no such thing as a 'bum-in-the-street's gambler' or anything like that. It could be anybody. It could be your wife, your daughter. It could be your grandmother. It could be anybody."
Ryan's parents decided to seek help immediately and they enrolled their son in a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous. Today, Ryan's almost two years clean of gambling. But his dad realizes that gambling will remain a threat to Ryan for the rest of his life.
"It's a constant challenge to his whole life right now. It's a bug that can bite you at any time. From now until the time he gets buried, I hate to say that, it's always there. It's a disease that's bred into you. It breaks up many families, extended families, you borrow from your brother, your sister, your friend, it explodes to the whole nuclear family."
Most schools already have programs designed to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases. But they have nothing about gambling. This is something that has to change, say Ryan's parents.
"In high school, they could have programs. I know that Ryan goes to different high schools and speaks, but it's not part of a regular curriculum. It's a special program," Ryan's mom says. "So they could have gambling on the curriculum along with health, sex education and that kind of stuff. I think it would be appropriate."
"There has to be education in colleges," adds Ryan's dad, "because the biggest thing when a kid turns 21 is 'let's go to Atlantic City and gamble.' It has to be more on the college level, reinforced every year. Make it a two-hour course every semester that kids have to go to just to refresh them about what the penalties are in the future in life."
It's a message that Ryan would certainly endorse.
"When I was in high school, I had people come and speak about what alcohol could do, but there was never anybody who came and said this is what gambling can do to you. This is the depths that gambling can bring you to. That might have helped me in terms of educating me about the perils of gambling."
Today, more young people are gambling than ever before. And they're doing so in more or less total ignorance about the perils that befell Ryan and could just as easily affect them. The lack of awareness among parents, schools and colleges about gambling's hidden dangers is contributing to youth gambling addiction becoming a real social problem in America.
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