IN middle school, most kids learn about numbers in algebra class. Thirteen year-old Mike S. learned about them by gambling.
At first, his habit cost him a few dollars a week. It started small, minor bets placed on professional sports games as part of a pool at his part-time job. Then he got the phone number of a ''bookie'' and began placing his own bets. Four years after he started, Mike racked up a gambling IOU of $12,000 in just one week.
Teenage gambling is not new. But experts believe it is quietly on the rise, fed by an increasing acceptance of it in society. Casinos and state lotteries abound. Bookies give easy credit to teens. And mortified parents are paying off their kids' gambling debts, concerned about the risk of mafia-style reprisals.
''No question, it's a national problem,'' says Kathleen Scanlan, program director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. ''We are absolutely seeing more teenage gamblers,'' says Tony Milillo, coordinator of the Compulsive Gambling Program at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment in Philadelphia.
And gambling can push teens to extremes: To cover large losses, teens may ''start to borrow money from their girlfriends, then steal money and jewelry from their parents, and then start to break into houses and cars,'' says Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey Inc.
But it is hard to quantify the size of the problem. In the Bay State, for example, Sgt. Thomas Foley of the state police force says parents are often reluctant to take their children to law-enforcement agencies. ''More of them are convinced to pay off their children's debts,'' says Sergeant Foley. Contributing to the quiet acquiescence is the fear that the money is owed to an organized-crime family.
A recent Harvard Medical School survey found that between 6.4 and 8.5 percent of suburban Boston high school students surveyed were classified as compulsive gamblers. Among the 75 percent who said they had gambled, 32.5 percent placed their first bet before the age of 11. Fifty-six percent started between 11 and 15.
The casino industry says it too is concerned about illegal teen betting and tries to stop underage gamblers before they get on casino floors. But Tom Brosig, executive vice president for Plymouth, Minn.-based Grand Casinos Inc., concedes the gambling institutions aren't always successful. He says parents need to take more responsibility. ''They think if their kids get caught at gambling, it's no big deal,'' he says.
That teenagers are into betting is not surprising to Police Chief Robert DeLitta of Nutley, N.J. In March, the police in the middle-class community broke up a teen sports betting ring of 30 to 40 high school kids who were wagering $5,000 to $7,500 per week.
''The Meadowlands [race track] is only 10 minutes away. The kids see people getting on the buses to go to Atlantic City every day, and the parents send their kids to buy lottery tickets,'' Chief DeLitta explains.
So far, the Essex County prosecutor has announced the arrest of six alleged participants in the ring. Unfortunately, says the chief, the people arrested are all low-level employees of the ring. ''We're not getting the upper-level people.''
The arrests followed a March incident when a 14-year-old high school student was allegedly kidnapped after he failed to pay about $500 in lost bets. The teenager was released at night in a Newark housing project where he flagged down a Newark police car.
As a result of the kidnapping, the Nutley police and the Essex County officials found out about the ring and confiscated about $10,000 in illegal sports bets. The police chief says that at least one parent, afraid of retaliation, paid off about $4,000 in debts owed by his son.
Not all parents are so generous. After Mike S. ran up his $12,000 debt, he left home. When he wanted to return, however, his mother would not allow him back. His high school insisted he go to the Belmont Center for help. Now, he's a college sophomore and says he no longer gambles.
Many high school students get started on sports betting the same way Mike did. ''They are told if they can pick four winning teams for $1, they will get $11 back,'' Mr. Looney explains.
From small beginnings, habits intensify. Many of the worst cases end up at the Belmont facility, which is the country's only treatment facility for teenagers hooked on wagering. Mr. Milillo says a certain percent of the teens become suicidal after they realize the problems they have caused.
At the center, he works with teens to help their low self-esteem and ferret out why gambling is important to them.
Some schools are unwittingly adding to the problem by sponsoring ''casino'' nights, where parents dress up like Las Vegas casino employees and children play with monopoly money. ''The whole idea is to keep the kids from going out drinking and driving while providing them with entertainment,'' says Betty George, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling.
Unfortunately, Ms. George says, the casino nights just teach the kids how to gamble. ''People don't think about it, but it's the same as underage drinking,'' George says.