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‘How my son went from gamer to compulsive gambler’

BBC Technology 08 Oct 2019 12:04
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The NHS has opened its first clinic for young people addicted to gaming and gambling, a year after a Gambling Commission report found that 55,000 11-to-16-year-olds in the UK were problem gamblers. For some the path to gambling begins with playing online games, as the BBC's Becky Milligan heard from the father of one young man now getting help for his addiction.

"Not in a million years, not in a million years did I think that gaming could lead to compulsive gambling."

Steve is sitting on a bench in a churchyard. He's agreed to talk to me about his son's gambling addiction. He's nervous, he hasn't done an interview before and I can feel his anxiety.

His son, now in his early 20s, is in recovery and doing well, "but we take one day at a time" he says.

"We've had a terrible three years. We wouldn't want anyone to go through what we have gone through. When we first discovered our son had the compulsive gambling disorder we didn't know what to do."

Steve tells me how one night his son lost his weekly wage in a matter of minutes. Distraught, he appealed to his parents for help. They did what many other parents would do: They paid off his debt, hoping that would be end of it. But it wasn't.

"We thought this was just a little glitch, this is what kids do," one father told me. And that's what Steve thought at first.

A year later, though, Steve was shocked to find out his son was gambling with other people's money, and losing large amounts.

Now Steve realised it was a very serious problem. He and his wife didn't know what to do. They began to isolate themselves, avoid going out or seeing friends. They were worried what people would say.

Last year, he and his wife went to a GamAnon meeting for families. Earlier this year his son also began to get help.

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He would play for hours and hours in his bedroom, Steve tells me, and all his mates were into to it as well. Steve didn't really understand what the games were about, let alone the new technology the games used. And anyway, at least his son was occupied, he says.

"We all want an easy life, a quiet life. Parents can be lazy. If he was playing upstairs I would think, 'It's not doing any harm is it?'"

Crucially, Steve's son was encouraged to pay for extra products, such as "ultimate team packs".

Steve thinks the difference between online gaming and gambling is very subtle, and that those children who excessively game online, like his son, are at risk of becoming compulsive gamblers later in life. It doesn't matter, he says, whether the game involves winning or losing real money.

"I believe so little is known in this country about both these behavioural addictions in children, that we need to hear it on the ground, we need to understand what these people are doing then work with policy makers, politicians and public health professionals to change the environment they live in," she told the BBC.

Where to get help

Gam-Anon

Gamblers Anonymous


However complicated it is, Steve says that parents need to know what their children are doing online, they need to become the experts in order to protect them.

"There are horror stories where children are spending excessive amounts of money on in-game purchases. Many of these games promote themselves as free games but the loot boxes in the games [are not]."

In a statement to the BBC, the association for UK interactive entertainment, Ukie, echoed Steve's call for parents to monitor their children's behaviour online.

Wes Himes, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, said it was very difficult for children to get through the verification process to gamble online. He added that the industry was not allowed to advertise near schools, or to target under-25s with its advertising.


Stewart Kenny, the Paddy Power founder who resigned in 2016 over what he saw as the failure to tackle problem gambling, says advertising is "normalising" gambling for children, and that it has become "nearly part of the game" when watching football.


He hopes his new charity will be able to visit schools and talk to parents.

At present, he says, the only help these youngsters have got is their parents.

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Steve GinnisGambling CommissionBBCNHSRemote Gambling Association