SINGAPORE - One started playing slot machine games on his cellphone when he was eight years old after overhearing his parents gushing about their weekend casino exploits.
Another, a 15-year-old, found himself owing classmates $500 - six months' worth of pocket money - after getting hooked on online football betting.
Youth gamblers like these two have attracted concern after a recently released survey by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) found more addicts are starting young.
Nearly one in six hardcore addicts who have a flutter at least once a week did so before they turned 18, said the survey. In 2011, this was 5 per cent.
Experts say more attention should be paid to youth who gamble as studies show they are up to four times more likely than adults to become addicted.
A 2011 study published in the Singapore Medical Journal, for example, found a third of problem gamblers who sought treatment at a hospital were exposed to gambling before they were 18.
Counsellors and specialists say gambling addicts are getting younger as social norms shift. "As we become a more affluent society, children feel the lure of growing their allowance through bets, and parents have the means to bail them out when they chalk up debts," said Mr Dick Lum, executive director of One Hope Centre, a voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) which counsels gamblers.
"They would rather help clear the debts to keep it hush hush, as the stigma of gambling debts may reflect badly on their parenting skills," he said.
Also, social attitudes towards games of chance have changed. About one in five gamblers polled saw sports betting and jackpot machines as "leisure activities".
"These are no longer considered taboo but discussed openly and the media, such as ESPN poker tournaments, normalises and glamorises gambling," said consultant psychiatrist Thomas Lee from the Resilienz Clinic, which deals with mental health.
The growing popularity of free online social gambling games such as casino game Slotomania was another factor.
NCPG chairman Lim Hock San said early exposure to such games makes youth vulnerable to becoming addicted to gambling, especially online gambling.
While one need not use real currency to play Slotomania, other online games allow players to buy virtual currency with real money so as to get mystery gifts to advance in the game, for instance.
"Such games are increasing the tendency of youth to try out online gambling later and we have been fielding 30 per cent more enquiries about online gambling in the past year," said Mr Chong Ee Jay, assistant manager at Touch Cyber Wellness.
Last year, the VWO worked with NCPG to include, in its school cyber wellness talks, a section on the gambling elements of gaming and social media.
NCPG said it will expand its youth outreach programmes to teach youth to identify and deal with gambling addiction.
But all these will remain "head knowledge" if the young do not own up to having a problem, said Mr Lum.
He suggested that family members do not pay off their children's gambling loans, unless the situation is dire. "Once these hot-blooded youth get burnt from playing with fire, hopefully they will realise its severity sooner rather than later."
This article was first published on February 07, 2015.
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