Ross was only a sophomore in high school when he started betting on video games. Almost overnight, he became a full-fledged gambling addict with $30,000 in debts.
"I started gambling on whatever I could get my hands on," said the New Rochelle, N.Y., teen, who asked that his last name be withheld. "I was always gambling and losing. I was always chasing that bet."
The now 19-year-old is currently in recovery in Gamblers Anonymous. But his story of adolescent addiction to gambling has become alarmingly common.
Gambling — especially poker — is on the rise among teens and pre-teens, according to gambling addiction experts and psychiatrists, who cite a mountain of anecdotal evidence and research on the phenomenon. The trend can be attributed to a growing acceptance of gambling in American culture, an increase in accessibility because of the Internet and more betting shows on TV.
“Gambling is a much more pervasive part of our society than it used to be,” said J. Michael Faragher, the director of training and development at the University of Denver Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center. “Kids pick right up on that. They pick up on the excitement, too.”
It was that euphoria that got Ross hooked on serious gambling, which he said he began doing his senior year of high school. After the previous two years of betting on video and sports games with classmates, he got a bookie during college basketball's end-of-season "March Madness."
"That was really money, I thought, so that was so exciting for me," he remembered. "I won, but $1,000 wasn't enough. So then I would gamble thousands on a game. I became greedy."
Disease and Addiction
Because the path of addiction is well trodden, experts worry that it’s only a matter of time before teen gambling addiction becomes an epidemic. Faragher said kids are three times as likely as adults to get hooked on a bad habit, meaning up to 12 percent of children and teens who gamble will probably become addicts.
“Kids are more susceptible,” said Faragher. “They don’t seem to have the kind of control and brain executive functions adults have.”
Certainly, as medical science has come to understand addiction as not just a social problem but a medical disease, research has provided some insight into possible biological and genetic factors that may contribute to gambling addiction.
A 2004 Yale University School of Medicine study on psychological factors associated with teen gambling provides some answers about which children might be predisposed to gambling dependency.
The Yale researchers found that adolescent gamblers were more likely to report depression and drug and alcohol use or dependence than non-gamblers.
Lead researcher Wendy J. Lynch and her colleagues concluded that "adolescent-onset gambling is associated with more severe psychiatric problems, particularly substance use disorders, in adolescents and young adults."
It may seem like an obvious finding, but Dr. Lawson F. Bernstein, a neuropsychiatrist and gambling addiction expert, said it's important to confirm even predictable conclusions when it comes to an emerging trend like this.
A 2005 study of 1,000 18-year-old men and women in New Zealand found that the personality profile associated with problem gambling was very similar to that associated with substance-related addictive disorders, specifically alcohol, nicotine and marijuana addiction.
The study also found that people with problem gambling in the past year were three times as likely to have one of three substance-abuse disorders and, in personality tests, were more likely to have higher scores in areas measuring negative emotions and impulsive and risky behavior.
Also in 2005, German scientists using brain scans compared the brain activity of compulsive gamblers to those of non-gamblers and found that the region of the brain signaling reward was much less active in compulsive gamblers. Those findings matched studies done on the brain activity of people with drug addiction, suggesting the same reward deficiency driving people to produce that feeling artificially through substance abuse may also compel some to try to produce it through gambling.
The study also noted decreased activation in the region of the brain linked to diminished impulse control.
A small, inconclusive study of 11 compulsive gamblers in Argentina suggested that gambling addiction could be associated with an impairment in the brain's prefrontal cortex, which would affect the ability of a person to consider the consequences of an action before taking that action.
And, in an unexpected medical development that sheds even more light on a link between brain function and addiction, a Mayo Clinic study published in July 2005 revealed that Parkinson's disease patients being treated with the drug Mirapex developed compulsive behaviors, including gambling, shopping and sexual addiction.
Mirapex (pramipexole) alleviates the tremors and stiff movements associated with Parkinson's disease by producing the effects of dopamine, a brain chemical that controls movement and is deficient in Parkinson's disease. Dopamine is also associated with the brain's experience of pleasure and reward.
Finally, other research has suggested that gambling addiction can be genetic. A 2006 study funded by the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a casino-industry group, found that relatives of compulsive gamblers were much more likely to experience their own gambling problems than those of non-gamblers.
The study compared a group of gamblers and their adult relatives with a control group of non-gamblers and family members, and found that between 8 and 12 percent of gamblers' relatives had their own gambling problems, while only 2 to 3.5 percent of non-gamblers' relatives were compulsive gamblers.
The researchers also found higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse among the gamblers' relatives.
One only needs to look at risk factors associated with young alcoholics to surmise that similar traits could exist in children who are vulnerable to becoming problem gamblers.
Pre-teen and adolescent boys who abuse alcohol tend to start drinking at a younger age than their peers, have a father with a history of alcoholism, get a stimulant effect from alcohol (rather than a depressant effect) and/or have abnormalities in their serotonin metabolism, said Bernstein, the neuropsychiatrist.
"We know people at risk for one addictive disorder are also at risk for other disorders," he said. "But nobody's proven that there's a so-called gambling gene."
Anecdotal evidence indicates that gambling addicts frequently come from unstable families, have been subject to overly harsh or unpredictable forms of punishment, have been the victims of neglect or abuse and/or have attachment difficulties and self-esteem issues, according Faragher, the Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center director.
Gambling on Rise
There are no statistics on how many adolescents gamble and how many develop gambling addictions. But more and more Americans are participating in the practice.
Total U.S. consumer spending at commercial casinos more than doubled in the decade from 1994 to 2004, jumping from $13.8 billion to $28.93 billion, according to the American Gaming Association. There was a 7.1 percent increase in casino spending from 2003 to 2004.
In 2005, 53 percent of adult Americans played the lottery, 35 percent gambled in a casino, 18 percent played poker, 6 percent bet on a race and 2 percent engaged in Internet gambling, the AGA found.
And consumer spending on poker shot up from 2003 to 2004. In Nevada and New Jersey, the only two states that track poker revenues, Americans spent 45 percent more on poker in 2004 — $151.7 million — than they did the previous year, according to the AGA.
Poker has become especially popular among adolescents in part because of the explosion of programs on television about playing it.
Some shows, like "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo, have depicted stars including Ben Affleck and Don Cheedle at the card table.
Others, like “The World Series of Poker” on ESPN and “The World Poker Tour” on The Travel Channel, track championships among ordinary people who are competitive players. But either way, seeing it on TV makes it look appealing to kids.
“It makes it more glamorous and it trivializes it,” said Bernstein. “It puts it in the face of that kid when that kid is vulnerable and impressionable.”
Bernstein said the card-game-for-money has even permeated teens’ social lives.
“There are more pre-teen and teen poker parties,” he said.
In addition to latching onto that age-old card game, adolescents have gotten more involved in gambling online and betting on sports.
Parents may miss the warning signs indicating the habit is getting out of hand because they could see gambling as a perfectly healthy way for children to spend their time.
“This looks very benign,” said Bernstein. “They’re home playing cards with their friends, they’re not drinking or doing drugs. It all looks very harmless. But the problem is for a certain number of kids, it’s going to be the addictive equivalent of pot in that they’re going to get in trouble with it.”
Part of the concern surrounding gambling dependency is that it's the addiction with the highest suicide-attempt rate, according to Faragher, who said that 20 percent of problem gamblers try to kill themselves.
Usually, it's because their addiction has led them to fall into a financial hole they can't climb out of.
"For a low-income person, it can be catastrophic," Faragher said. "It's not an addiction people are able to walk away from the consequences of."
One of the worst things that could happen to a child at risk for developing a gambling problem is some sort of big win, since that's often what propels someone to try to repeat the experience, Faragher said.
In Ross' case, that big win came when he went away to the Bahamas for his senior year spring break and raked in $3,000 in one night at a casino.
"That was heaven," he said. "But I lost all the money."
Ross' situation is right in line with the Yale study findings, since he not only developed a gambling addiction but a problem with marijuana abuse too. The two habits fed into each other: He would use his gambling money to buy pot and sell pot to support his gambling habit, all the while borrowing thousands of dollars from his parents, grandparents and friends.
"It was interchangeable," he said. "I borrowed Peter to pay Paul. It was hard-earned, legitimate money made by my grandfather, mother, father. But I still didn't learn my lesson."
The important thing is to educate families about adolescent gambling and the dangers that can accompany it, said Faragher. Problem gamblers can call 1-800-522-4700, a 24-hour confidential help-line set up especially for them, he said.
“We need to do with gambling what we did with drugs and alcohol and start informing children and families that it can lead to severe problems,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we have to burn the casinos down.”
Ross finally broke his habit with the help of his parents, who forced him into Gamblers Anonymous after he came back from the Bahamas and, as punishment, made him confess what he'd been doing to his entire family on Thanksgiving.
"That was the worst experience of my life. I had to come clean to everyone," he said. "My brother was infuriated with me, my sister, my mom, my dad. I cried. That was the hardest day of my life."
Though Ross initially was still smoking pot even after he'd stopped gambling, he soon gave up the drug habit too and has been totally clean since that November of 2004.
During his recovery, the teen — who had to drop out of university because of his struggle with addiction — has enrolled in community college and excelled in school. Next month, he will move out on his own again, to New York City, to start an internship with a sports broadcaster.
He plans to try to help other kids avoid getting hooked on gambling by speaking at schools about his own experience. And he still goes to Gamblers Anonymous meetings every week.
"Now that I think about it, it was an escape," Ross said in explaining his gambling addiction. "It wasn't about the money; it was about the action. When I was betting on anything, it was a rush. It was heaven for me."