We need to talk about gambling

If there was ever any doubt, the recent publication of statistics by the Gambling Commission reaffirmed the extent to which gambling, in one way or another, is woven into the fabric of British society. Six in ten of us have gambled in the past year. For the majority, this is enjoyable and problem free. But the figures also show that probably half a million people suffer from quite serious gambling problems, harming themselves, their families and friends, and the wider economy.

For the past year, Demos has been piloting educational resources in secondary schools as part of wider efforts to help prevent gambling-related harm. The project has been a partnership between Demos, the PSHE Association, Mentor, the Central and Northwest London NHS Foundation Trust, and a range of independent teachers and advisors. It has been supported by the independent charity GambleAware. There are four lessons which slot into a planned programme of PSHE provision for 15 year olds. They encourage pupils to weigh risk, identify manipulative behaviour, manage impulses, help others – covering a range of ‘risky behaviours’, but with gambling as a major case study. With pupils just back to school, we will run our final surveys and see what impact we’ve had on attitudes and behaviour.

In the education world, as in other places, attitudes towards gambling feel a bit out of step with the times. There is little doubt that compared to drugs and alcohol, gambling is rarely talked about in schools. This is surprising. Statistics from Ipsos Mori have shown that 16 per cent of 11-15 year olds have gambled with their own money in the last week (note: far more likely with friends, than in casinos), a figure which has remained relatively stable for years. This is higher than prevalence rates of both drinking and taking drugs for this age group; and may be higher than gambling prevalence across Europe. Furthermore, opportunity for young people to gamble is only going to increase, with scares around ‘skins gambling’ and other virtual currencies in the gaming world (and the millions of pounds headlines told us British children may have spent on this) indicating the direction of travel. The rise of activities around e-sports is one example of how lines between gaming and gambling continue to blur. And we are only beginning to understand the role advertising and social media play. In this context, it’s been informative to see just how much demand there has been from schools to take part in our pilot.

One of the key challenges we face – as with any prevention programme – is the charge that what we are doing may be counter-productive. That, actually, by raising awareness of gambling we will be encouraging more of it, and may even increase the number of problem gamblers out there. This must be taken seriously. The charge can of course be levelled at lessons about all risky behaviours – including drink, drugs, underage sex. The fact these conversations have moved on (“of course it’s important to talk about these things in schools”), again demonstrates the odd place that gambling currently occupies in the collective psyche. What the wider academic literature does suggest is that early experiences and exposure to gambling in the formative stages of development can shape attitudes, cognitions, and behaviours in adulthood. We need to be honest – and it’s what’s motivated our project – that exposure to gambling – from our high streets, football matches, through to the playground – is nigh on impossible for school children to avoid, and thus messages to help develop healthy attitudes must be loud and clear. As above, statistics are already capturing quite a proportion of young people gambling by the time they reach 15.

Irrespective of the outcomes of this particular pilot, the risk of harm to young people caused by gambling, and the central importance of prevention, needs due attention. It’s all very well dominating headlines with Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, but equal attention needs to be paid to the proliferation of gambling and quasi-gambling activities online and the new risks posed to children and young people; not to mention the Category D machines out there without age restriction. Demos will be reporting the findings of the pilot in early 2018.