For Christmas this year, Austin Fox, age 13, got exactly what he asked Santa for -- a tabletop casino-style poker set. Like growing numbers of children and adults, the Philadelphia youth has been seduced by the lure of poker.
In fact, Austin plays poker about three times a month. His mother, Susan Hewitt, thought long and hard before deciding upon his Christmas gift. "I decided to let him play as long as it is in moderation and supervised by myself or another parent," she says. "They are not playing with exorbitant amounts of money and I see it as more of a social gathering," she tells WebMD. Still, she admits, "the day I taught him what a poker face was, I thought what am I doing?"
Ante Up Anyone?
Buoyed by the popularity of television shows such as Celebrity Poker Showdown, World Poker Tour, and the World Series of Poker, this card game is more popular than ever. World Poker Tour officials estimate that 100 million people in the U.S. at least occasionally play poker and that's up from 50 million about 18 months ago, according to an article in the Washington Times. Other casino games, too, seem to be experiencing a rebirth of sorts. Las Vegas is once again a preferred vacation destination, online gambling is on fire, cell phones have downloadable blackjack and casino-style gifts are flying off of store shelves.
But does this new generation of gamblers really know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run (as Kenny Rogers would croon)?
"Poker is the new rage among adolescents, and kids as young as 9 are now playing," says JoAnn White, PhD, a therapist who specializes in addiction in Cherry Hill, N.J. "More than 8% of new gamblers may end up having some type of gambling addiction, but we don't know how to identify then in advance," White says.
"You could have bars all over a city and it doesn't mean you should close them down because some people are alcoholics," adds Debra Mandel, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. But "certainly for people who are hooked on gambling, this new wave can and will have negative consequences," she says.
"If it's not going to be a problem, you won't make it one by playing a game," she says. The converse is also true. "People who are prone to addiction will find something to get addicted to," Mandel says.
With most addictions and addictive personalities, the younger the behavior starts the more likely it will continue because they lack inner resources, Mandel says. Risk factors include family history of addiction, depression, or anxiety. "A lot of times addictions are a way to self-medicate an anxiety disorder or depression," she says.
Red Flags for Addiction
Tell-tale signs among children include declining school grades, unaccounted for lost money, or by contrast, a lot of money and new possessions and/or mood swings before or after a game.
In adults, "if you set a limit and repeatedly break that limit, that is a definite indicator that you may have a problem in that area," Mandel tells WebMD. "If you find yourself thinking about the activity with high frequency, that may mean it's a problem."
Other red flags may include "changes in social or intimate relationships so that you become more withdrawn and less interested in people and other kinds of activities that usually brought you pleasure," she says.
Hewitt is on the lookout for such signs in Austin. "He's an excellent student and every season, he plays a sport," she says. "If I saw education or sports faltering or if I found that poker became his main interest, I would probably put a stop to it," she says.
"Obesity is rising and gambling is another sedentary activity that we are supporting rather than saying go out and play sports," White adds.
"Maybe schools should teach about risks of gambling like they do alcohol and drugs," suggests White, who is also a professor of education at Temple University in Philadelphia. "One of the highest selling items for the holiday season was poker games and tables that parents are freely and easily buying for kids, so they are not getting the message that they are getting about drugs and alcohol."
Sure, "playing poker may start out as exciting and glamorous, but children need to be reminded of the positive pay off of hard work and the [resulting] feelings of accomplishment," she stresses.
Just as they monitor against sexual predators who may contact children through online chat rooms, parents should also monitor gambling web sites, she says. "Imagine if an adolescent looks at how much money they can win on online," she says. "It's very tempting and done in very eye-catching ways on the web. [This] can be very attractive to someone without that level of discernment."
But it's not just children who are vulnerable to this new wave of gambling.
"Whenever you expose one population to any behavior or substance that could be a problem, some of these people will become addicts," explains psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Lance Dodes, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"For example, if you took an island off the coast of America and had a population that was never exposed to alcohol, there would be no alcoholics, but if you exposed them, 5% to 8% will become alcoholics," says Dodes, also the former director of the Boston Center for Problem Gambling and the author of The Heart of Addiction.
Did Lotteries Produce More Women Gamblers?
Gambling -- and compulsive gambling -- grew enormously in the late 1960s when state lotteries were first put into place, Dodes says.
"It used to be said that compulsive gambling was 90% male and now that's no longer true," he says. In the past, "gambling involved the horse track, the dog track, the race track or sporting events and women were not into it, but the lottery is equal opportunity," he tells WebMD.
"We now have all the soccer moms who think nothing of going into stores and buying a lottery ticket," he says. And "the more people who engage in gambling, the more addicts will emerge," he says.
Tip of the Gambling Iceberg?
People who become gambling addicts are also more likely to have other addictions, he says. About 40% of compulsive gamblers also abuse alcohol. "When people solve internal problems through addictive behavior, they can shift from one to another," he says. "That's why you often see people who start out as street drug users in their teens and then become alcoholics in adulthood."
A new study in the journal Nature Neuroscience backs this theory up. The study showed that compulsive gamblers and drug addicts have similar patterns of brain activity.
"In my experience, there does tend to be a lot of crossover, but just because a person has one addiction doesn't mean they will have another," says Mandel.
Symptom substitution is a common phenomenon among addicts, she says. "They may transfer their energy to something else and become addicted to it," she explains. "This can be positive, say, if a person becomes really committed to exercise instead of gambling."
According to Dodes, getting a good evaluation about what is bothering you that is being expressed through addiction is important. "When you understand what it is that is driving the addiction, you can better do something about it."
For more information on the risks of gambling in teens, visit the North American Training Institute web site at www.nati.org. Problem gamblers can also contact gamblers anonymous at www.gamblersanonymous.org.