Sports Gambling Apps and Teen Brains

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Sports Gambling Apps and Teen Brains

Sports Betting Apps & Teen Brains

We’ve noticed a concerning trend, as online gambling, especially sports betting, is more accessible through apps. Companies like FanDuel and DraftKings market towards younger audiences through apps kids use and offer easy access.

Engaging in these apps can create neurological rewards in the brain that may be difficult for teens to resist. We already know from the neuroscience community that adolescent brains have a sensitive dopamine reward system. Our concern is that this has the potential to hook teen users early.

Sports Betting Background

How did we get here?

The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, or PASPA, (which defined the legal status of sports betting in the US) was overturned in May of 2018 by the Supreme Court.

This allowed online gambling to grow quickly, now with over 30 states allowing sports gambling either online or in-person. Evidenced by the prevalence of highway billboards advertising app-based betting that I’m sure many of you have noticed.

FanDuel, DraftKings, and Caesars are three of the most popular sports betting apps.

What Risks do Gambling Apps Present to Teens?

Dr. Timothy Fong, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said this:

“Young adults are at particular risk for developing a gambling problem, especially if there is a family history of gambling or if they are introduced to it at a young age. The increased accessibility of online gambling may accelerate the development of problems.” – Dr. Timothy Fong (Source)

The marketing for these sports betting apps shows up in places also used by younger audiences, like Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Twitch.

Most of us can put some money down, have some fun and walk away unscathed. But not everyone.

“It was all very accessible from my phone. I started doing it compulsively… It was like two people in my brain. Now I realize it was an addiction trying to fight against whoever I really am.” – Steven Delaney (Gambling Addict) (Source)

He found the addiction easy to hide at first. Delaney said his wife, Kelly, could sit at his side but be unaware he was gambling away the family 401(k) on his phone.

Young brains are especially vulnerable to gambling’s rewards. The adolescent striatum responds to rewards faster than children or adults.

Gambling functions in a similar fashion as drugs when it comes to the brain’s reward system. Both gambling and drugs promise a reward, either tangible or neurological. And dopamine picks up on this promise, providing focus and motivation toward the actions that might fulfill that promise.

For example, say you bet $5 on FanDuel and win $150. This creates a reward pathway that will be super-charged with dopamine (anticipation of a reward) with the next opportunity. Naturally, your brain wants to keep doing this. Dr. Fong also says this about gambling in comparison to other addictions:

“Gambling, unlike any other addiction, is associated with cognitive distortions. People say, ‘If I keep gambling then eventually, I’ll win.’ You don’t say that about alcohol, tobacco, or cocaine.” (link)

Rick Benson, the founder of the Algamus Gambling Recovery Center in Arizona, states that the number of young adults receiving treatment for gambling problems has more than doubled from 2019 to 2021. (Source)

Do Sports Gambling Apps have Controls?

These apps are made for adults, so traditional parental controls aren’t available, but some usage controls are. For example:

  • Timeout – disable your account for 3 – 365 days.
  • Deposit Threshold – requires players that deposit more than $2,500 must read a Responsible Play Statement. This statement includes language: “GAMBLING PROBLEM? Call 1-800-270-7117”
  • Reality Check – allows you to set reminders of how much money you’ve spent over the past 15 or 30 minutes. Side note: This seems to happen automatically as we were notified that we had spent 29 minutes in the app and had spent / made $0.00 in bets during our testing.
  • Limitations on Consumer Deposits – explains legal deposit limits based on state.

What Steps can Parents Take?

Statistically, males are more susceptible to sports gambling’s promises than females. Remember the Robinhood app? It was the assistant principal at a large all-boys high school that alerted us to the prevalence of its use among his young men.

Remember these apps are rated “17+” (Apple) or Mature (Android). This means parents may want to exert some control over the types of apps that their children have access to, depending on the age of the child.

Dads can lead by example. Although I know plenty of moms who love fantasy football, it’s more often dads who are managing multiple teams with various friends. Dads might be tempted to then conclude, “Let’s do this together!” But we simply aren’t big fans of introducing young, developing, male brains to this kind of digital stimulation any earlier than necessary.

And finally, coming of age conversations usually consist of the common alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. However, maybe it’s time to add online gambling to the list, as we help prepare our kids, especially our young men, to be productive in a digital world that is constantly chasing their attention.

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1 thought on “Sports Gambling Apps and Teen Brains”

  1. I appreciate Chris McKenna bringing up this issue. It is one that I have not given much thought to before. Gambling can be a problem for some people, especially young adults. I like that the article provides some tips for parents on dealing with this issue.

    I do have a question about sports gambling apps, though. Do these apps have any controls to prevent underage gambling? I would assume that they would, but I’m not sure. If they don’t, that is a problem that needs to be addressed.

    Other than that, I think this is a well-written and informative article. Thanks for posting it.

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