Surveys and Research: Young People and Gambling in the UK

Surveys and Research: Young People and Gambling in the UK

  • Andrew Tottenham — Managing Director, Tottenham & Co
December 18, 2019 7:45 AM
  • Andrew Tottenham — Managing Director, Tottenham & Co

Earlier this year, the UK Gambling Commission published its annual report on Young People and Gambling, with young people defined as those between 11 and 16 years old. Despite the alarmist headlines there was much to be cheerful about. Although 11% said they had spent their own money gambling in the past 7 days, this was down from 14% in the previous year’s survey. However, included in these figures is young people who have bet or played cards for money with friends. I am not sure this is something that should be frowned upon; betting with friends for money or other things is surely part of growing up.

As an aside, I do remember playing poker for money at my school and being reasonably successful. It made me think I was a good player, so much so that a few years later, when I was about nineteen, I went to a local casino to play poker. In less than 20 minutes I had lost everything. Lesson learned!

Perhaps, more worryingly, 69% of those surveyed had seen or heard gambling advertisements, although 83% of them said it had not prompted them to gamble. Unless there is a direct call to action, advertisements are not necessarily about an immediate response; they can just be about brand building. The worry expressed about the impact of the advertisements on young people is that gambling becomes a “normal”.

The publication of this part of the research has led to more calls for a ban on the broadcast advertising of gambling. Most operators use broadcast advertising (television and radio) to build brands and gain market share, not necessarily to increase the overall number of gamblers. This is a classic example of the Nash equilibrium, a concept in game theory whereby the players in a non-cooperative game will take the action that will cause the least harm to themselves.

In this case, an operator has a choice, to advertise or not to advertise. Assuming the overall market of gamblers stays static, if the operator chooses not to advertise and their competitors do likewise then market shares will remain roughly the same. However, if one or more of their competitors advertises, the operator will suffer a decline in market share and revenues. In the case where the operator decides to advertise, if the competitors do not, revenues increase; and if they do advertise, the status quo is maintained. Clearly the operator has no control over their competitors, so in order to avoid the potential of falling market share and a decline in profits it is better they advertise.

An advertising ban would change that dynamic, breaking the equilibrium – every operator is forced not to advertise. In this instance, market share would remain approximately the same, advertising budgets would fall, and profits would increase. This is exactly what happened in the early 1970s when the US Congress proposed a ban on television advertising of cigarettes. Did the tobacco industry lobby against the ban? Not at all. Advertising of cigarettes was banned, sales remained the same, advertising budgets dropped, and profits soared.

Health Service England (HSE), part of the National Health Service, conducts an annual survey of the health and wellbeing of resident of England; the survey includes a section on gambling behaviour. On the day of publication of the results of the last survey, Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of HSE, castigated the gambling industry for not taking care of its customers and added that, “these new stats are a stark reminder of how common gambling is in our society, and how easy it is to become addicted, particularly with the aggressive push into online gambling”.

However, the details of the 2018 survey contain something different. Yes, about 54% of those surveyed gambled, though when gambling on the National Lottery is excluded the proportion drops to 40%. But in 2015 the figure was 62% for all gambling, and 45% excluding the lottery. Also, combining the results of the DSM IV and PGSI screens (and we can argue the effectiveness of these measures), the rate of problem gambling came in at 0.5%, a reduction from 0.9% in 2015.

We must remember that problem gambling is not gambling addiction; the latter is a subsection of the former. But also remember that this is in no way a measure of the harm caused by problematic gambling behaviour. The industry should be pleased that the rate of problem gambling appears to be moving in the right direction, but should not become complacent, if that is at all possible in the fevered times, and should be concerned at the decrease in the number of gamblers.

GambleAware, an independent UK grant-making charity that commissions services and research about problem gambling and gambling harm, held its annual conference in London earlier this month. The theme of the day was “Keeping children and young people safe from gambling harms”, a theme I think we can all agree with.

One of the panel discussions reviewed research that had been conducted into young people and gambling. That included a piece of longitudinal research by Professor Alan Emond and Dr Linda Hollen, of the Bristol Medical School, as part of the “Bristol Children of the 90s” study. This study started in 1997 and asked parents of 6-year-olds to complete gambling screens; this was repeated when their children were 18. The children (young adults by then) were asked series of questions when they were 17 years old, 20 years old, and again at 24 years old, about their gambling behaviour, alcohol and drug use, and depression and well-being.

Not surprisingly, the number of these young adults gambling increased from 54% at 17 to 68% at 20, but dropped back to 66% at 24. However, what was noticed was that not all of the people who were gambling at aged 17 were still gambling at the age of 24, and some that started between the ages of 17 and 20 had stopped by the time they were 24. This didn’t stop “Mr Angry” from the Daily Mail, who published the headline “Half of men are gambling online by the age of 24 after getting hooked as teenagers, new study suggests”, completely missing the point of the study.

Online betting amongst young men who took part in the survey did grow dramatically, from 9.4% at the age of 17, when it would have been illegal to do so, to 47% at 24, and in young women from just under 1% to 11.3%. Respondents were surveyed in 2008, 2012, and again in 2016.
But there is piece of “noise” that almost certainly impacted these results. Smartphones were first introduced in 2007, but today they are ubiquitous, used by over 90% of the adult population. In 2012, about 50% of UK adults had access to a smartphone; in 2016 it was 81%. How much did ubiquitous access to online gambling make a difference to individuals? I know that the budget for research is not endless, but it would have been good to take a group who was 17 in 2012 and follow their gambling activity every few years to see if earlier or later access to a smartphone was a significant factor in their gambling behaviour.

In the study, the links between problematic alcohol and drug use and problem gambling were stark. Similarly, those with depression and poor mental health were shown to be more likely to be problem gamblers than those without. It is too simplistic to say that problem gambling causes alcohol and drug addiction or poor mental health, or vice versa. As my first statistics professor would frequently say, “Correlation does not imply causation, but it is a marker for further study”. Consider the correlation between US per capita consumption of Mozzarella cheese and the number of civil engineering degrees awarded between 2000 and 2010. The two sets of numbers do track almost perfectly, but I would not recommend it as a topic for further research.

It remains for me to offer you my best wishes for the season and a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.