Everyone who advocates lowering the gambling age limit invariably cites gambling as a harmless activity that can actually evolve into a brain-stimulating social event.
They also cite the proliferation of gambling — TV poker, casinos and lotteries, Internet casinos, horse and dog tracks, casino-style after-prom parties, publicized sports-betting lines ”” and its acceptance into mainstream society as a trend that can’t be reversed.
They also point out that underage gamblers can find action on the Internet, through online casinos and poker rooms.
Unfortunately, the truth is that problem gamblers among adolescents is at a rate about double that of adults — 4 percent to 6 percent.
Moreover, an additional 8 percent to 10 percent are at risk of becoming problem gamblers.
Research also shows that the earlier someone starts gambling, the more likely he or she will become an adult problem gambler. And if the gambling age limit is lowered to 18, there’s no doubt people will begin gambling even earlier.
"Gambling problems are a progressive disease ”¦ Today’s children are growing up in a society in which it is totally legal, in which you turn on the major networks, let alone the specialty networks, and you see poker tournaments with major stakes," said Jeff Derevensky, who leads the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems in Montreal, Quebec. "They are growing up in an environment much different than ever before, so we don’t know what’s going to happen."Teenagers, primarily boys, have long played poker and bet on football and pool games.
One theory about youth gambling holds that all people take risks when they are children but stop when they mature. So the children will be all right as they grow up.
But another theory about youth gambling has darker overtones.
"The other theory says these kids who grow up now with these problems, they’re only going to escalate because once they get more access (to gambling), what’s going to happen?" Derevensky said.
Some evidence is emerging that young people are beginning to make up an increasing share of problem gamblers.
In New Jersey, for instance, people under age 21 made 6 percent of the calls last year to a gambling help line, up from 5 percent in 2003 and 2 percent the three previous years. The percentage of help line callers saying they were students grew from less than 1 percent in 2000-03 to 4 percent in 2004.
Many kids who gamble now believe they can be big poker winners, said Ed Looney, a recovering compulsive gambler who leads the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling.
"But it’s a lot of luck," he said. "You get the cards or you don’t get the cards. Parents should be aware of this, and if the kids play, they shouldn’t play for money. They should play for fun, or little chips that don’t mean anything."
Based on the teenagers Behman Zakeri meets, the poker craze is not a fad ready to fade.
Zakeri, who just played in his third World Series of Poker, owns a collector’s shop in Overland Park, Kansas, frequented by teens and preteens. They buy cards for other games like Yu-Gi-Oh, but talk about how they love to get together for poker games, he said.
"What scares me with a lot of these kids is they don’t have money. They make $200 or $300 a paycheck," he said. "If they lose that playing cards, they lose their whole paycheck. They don’t understand the seriousness.
"Poker is the most brutal lifestyle sport that any one person can do as a living," Zakeri continued. "Thank God I have a job."