Features  A game of chance

Students’ gambling addictions compromise academics, social lives, relationships

It’s Friday, and some students are thinking of taking a risk tonight. They’re grabbing their money, heading to the nearest casino, and letting their chips fall where they may.

Gambling opportunities and venues are nearly ubiquitous: Lotteries, scratch cards, and online poker are easily accessible to everyone of age, including students. And of course, the traditional dimly-lit casinos, havens for gamblers, are scattered throughout cities.

Given the many forms of gambling, it’s not surprising that the total profit from gambling operations in Canada is high. CTV News estimated the net revenue from government-run lotteries, video lottery terminals, and casinos at $13.3-billion in 2006.

Although millions of Canadians dabble in risky gambling, and the Responsible Gambling Council reported that 332,000 people in Canada experience gambling problems, it is university-aged students (18-24) that are most likely to actually develop problems.

In fact, the rate at which students find themselves playing toss-up with their money is double that of people over 24.

McGill did a review of 23 postsecondary gambling studies in 1999 and found that gambling problems were prevalent in seven per cent of postsecondary students, compared to 3.4 per cent of adults.

The Responsible Gambling Council states that in 2005, 6.7 per cent of students had a moderate or severe gambling problem.

When asked why students are at the highest risk for developing an addiction, Nathan Cooper, a psychologist for the Centre for Student Development at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the historical context of gambling plays an important role in its current status.

“If we look historically at when gambling was introduced, when it became legalized, and how it’s emerged culturally, students in particular within the past ten and 20 years are the first generation that have grown up in a culture that has accepted and legalized gambling activity. So that is a particular susceptibility in terms of overall general attitudes toward it,” Cooper says.

He nonetheless claims that a university environment does not necessarily increase the frequency of gambling. It is usually the market outside of a postsecondary setting that targets students through online pop-ups and good deals on casino nights.

Third-year McMaster Engineering student Jay Scout* gambles recreationally with friends once or twice a week and attends casinos every few months.

Scout says he gambles “for the money and the feeling you get when you win.”

“It’s like a rush of adrenaline,” he explains. “It’s like giving a little kid sugar.”

Scout confesses to having steadily increased his allotted spending amount.

“[I] started going to the casino in February only willing to spend $100, now I am willing to go as much as $600 and lose it without thinking of it.”

Cooper says increasing your spending limit or breaking your set amount is a sign of a potential gambling problem.

Scout explains that his interest in casinos and gambling lies in the promptness of it all.

“It’s like a quick investment. You put down a certain amount of money and you can double-up or even get more [than] what you invested. There is the obvious risk of losing it, but I’ve gambled enough to be pretty confident that I will win, hence making it, in the end, not a waste of money.”

An overconfident attitude, especially after a few wins, is common among students unfamiliar with the probabilities of gambling. Cooper says gambling has particular psychological aspects.

“Basically, it’s a series of superstitious behaviours: the ability to recall wins versus the ability to recall losses,” he says.

“People are making judgments, they actually feel that they can beat the odds, when in reality, the house always wins.”

After a little beginner’s luck, gamblers may find themselves quickly losing their money, causing them to panic and continue playing to regain their losses.

Chasing one’s losses, Cooper says, is the most common way to get stuck in the gambling whirlpool.

Imagining himself in a gambler’s shoes, he explains the thought process: “I get into the hole [of] $2,000-3,000, there’s really no other way I can think of to generate that amount of income within a short amount of time.”

Getting caught in the gambling spiral can have devastating financial and social results.

“Cash flow issues; credit problems – maybe that’s not an early sign but it [can lead to] a lot of white collar crimes; preoccupation with it; starting to interfere with personal and social functioning. That’s how a lot of things are diagnosed about pathological gambling,” Cooper says.

“This is interfering with ability to do your schoolwork successfully and it’s also starting to negatively affect your relationships. People really don’t want you around a poker table anymore. Other close friends may be noticing a change in your behaviour if you seem a little more agitated, or they simply haven’t seen you if you’re sitting behind a computer screen the whole time, playing blackjack or poker,” he continues.

The direct risks involved with gambling are fairly evident, including losses in cash and other assets; and feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and depression. But there are also many indirect risks.

Gamblers may adopt risky attitudes in the daily sectors of their lives, including their jobs. They may find themselves riding emotional rollercoasters and feeling isolated from their peers, their friends, and their families.

Scout has a few friends whose lives have been affected by their parents’ gambling problems, leading to social and familial complications.

“One resulted in a divorce, another [in the parents not speaking] to each other anymore, [and the] last one resulted in a separation, but the father worked out his gambling problems and hasn’t gambled ever since,” he says.

Like any addiction, recognizing and admitting the problem is the first step to recovery. Unfortunately, many people remain in denial until it is too late to turn back.

“Most people that are drinking, doing drugs, or gambling are pretty happy with themselves. They really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel – they have to be out cash, out a job, lose a house – before they say: ‘You know what, everybody told me, but I finally get it. This is a problem and I want to do something about it,’” Cooper says.

Some biological traits particularly increase the likelihood of an addiction, like impaired impulse control or hypersensitivity to endorphin-based stimulation.

Although Cooper declares bingo and lotteries to be the most addictive gambling activities, they yield smaller losses than other engagements, like games played in casinos or betting.

Addictions associated with online gambling are also gaining prevalence.

Online gaming is currently the fastest rising sector in the gambling industry. The games are very private – communication with other players is limited to networking – and if played excessively, begin to hinder social stimulation.

While most forms of gambling have more cons than pros, card games can at least help develop rational skills and provide a forum for social engagement.

Online gaming removes that forum; participants can spend hours upon hours huddled behind a computer screen without any physical interaction with others.

Overindulging in any type of gambling, however, can be seriously detrimental and should be addressed.

“It’s disturbing to hear about somebody who’s wearing a Depends diaper so that they can sit at a slot machine [or] sit at a computer,” Cooper says. “[When] they don’t want to miss a round of poker [that badly], it’s problematic.”

-This article originally appeared in The Silhouette from McMaster University

*names have been changed to protect identities.