For the first time, experts and treatment centers that deal with problem gamblers across the country are seeing an increasing number of adolescents who have developed serious gambling problems.
In Connecticut, for instance, it was rare for any treatment center to have clients younger than 18. That's until this year. Now, 11 youngsters are in formal programs getting help.
In Minnesota, a pioneering youth gambling-education group is seeing "a tremendous increase" in schools and youth organizations looking for tools to help kids deal with problem gambling.
And in Washington, experts are calling on Congress to hold hearings on the issue - in part because more than a dozen gambling shows air on prime-time television in an average week, and none routinely carries warning messages or public-service announcements on "responsible" gambling, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
"It is a major, growing issue," says Barbara Raimundo, a mother of a recovering gambling addict who now counsels other parents in Connecticut. "Our youth need major help, and someone has to be willing to step up to the plate before they start getting really devastated."
A key reason for the increase in youth gambling is that it's now seen as "cool." In fact, the once disreputable pastime that was confined to a handful of shady destinations a quarter century ago is now legal in all but two states, and is touted as glamorous entertainment.
Casinos heavily advertise their lavish, exciting amenities. Celebrities play poker on TV, and poker players become celebrities winning millions of dollars. At the same time, gambling is heavily advertised on the Internet and is easy to access, no matter how old one is.
Research shows that more than 70 percent of kids between 10 and 17 have gambled in the past year, according to the National Council. That's up from 45 percent in 1988. Experts also say they're gambling younger and playing for more money.
And, just as a percentage of adults who gamble are likely to develop a gambling addiction, so, too, are young people. Research shows that as many as 4 to 5 percent of adult gamblers will develop a serious gambling problem. Kids are at three times the risk of adults for developing a problem.
"We know that the earlier you start gambling, the more likely you will be to have a gambling problem. The National Academy of Sciences found that in 1999," says Keith Whyte, executive of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington.
But for many parents, whose kids are growing up in an age of drugs and AIDS, gambling is seen as a relatively safe pastime. Teens can be at home, playing a game that's thought of as fun. And for many people, a regular poker night or fundraising casino event at school may present no problems. But experts are concerned that a lack of education about gambling's potential pitfalls could feed an already alarming increase in younger problem gamblers.
"It is a situation where many parents still do assume that it's better for a kid to be gambling than to be out on the streets doing drugs or whatever," says Dr. Rachel Volberg, president of Gemini Research, which specializes in gambling studies in Northampton, Mass.
The primary risk is that kids can get so caught up in the thrill that they begin to gamble regularly. Eventually, they start risking money that they don't have - and losing it. When that starts, they're called problem gamblers, and the consequences include what doctors diagnose as depression as well as criminal behavior, according to the National Council.
One student at a Midwest college wrote the National Council asking for help. He said he'd started playing online poker and is now $5,000 in debt. His e-mail continued: "I want to quit gambling but at the same time I have to make the $5,000 back [because] I don't have it and it was written through IGM echecks. I think that could be considered a felony for writing bad checks. Any suggestions?"
Researchers are also beginning to believe that gambling is a "gateway" activity to riskier behaviors. Indeed, kids who gamble are also much more likely to binge drink, smoke marijuana, skip school, and have unsafe sex, according to several studies cited by the National Council.
Experts would like to see media outlets that air gambling events also show public-service announcements or other types of advertisements that talk about gambling's potential health risks, list warning signs, and provide information about responsible gambling - such as setting limits, never gambling during anger or depression, and never gambling on credit.
Mr. Whyte says the council has offered the Discovery Channel, Bravo, NBC, and others free public-service announcements, but so far they've declined them. ESPN, however, has aired some PSAs that included the council's help number, 800-522-4700.
There are also resources on the Internet for parents and kids who are interesting in learning about the risks involved with gambling and the attendant warning signs. The North American Training Institute (NATI) in Duluth, Minn., has designed a Web magazine for kids to learn about the risks involved with gambling: www.wannabet.org. It also has resources for parents at www.nati.org.
NATI's executive director, Elizabeth George, says it's crucial for parents to learn the warning signs. "If the child talks about gambling as the most exciting and important thing in their life, if it's superseding other things like a girlfriend or hockey practice, or if he is missing other activities because he's gambling, it could be the sign of a problem," says Ms. George.
Other indications of a problem include: lying about whether they are gambling; using money to gamble that's supposed to be used for other things like a winter jacket; borrowing money to gamble or, in a worst case, stealing it; and letting schoolwork suffer.
"Parents have to get gambling on their radar screen, they have to say, 'Tell me about your gambling," says George.