Free online casino games linked with higher risks of gambling problems for young people

New CAMH study finds nearly one in eight high school students played social casino games

Type "slots" into a search engine, and free online games and apps will appear, easily accessible on a phone or computer. A new CAMH study shows that free gambling-themed games may be a gateway to paid gambling for young people, and gameplay is linked with a higher risk of gambling problems among some adolescents.

While bricks-and-mortar casinos and legal gambling websites are off-limits to adolescents, free online games are open to anyone. Called social casino games, they let people try their hand at casino table games, slots, poker or bingo without betting real money. Like monetary gambling, people place bets in hopes of winning rewards, in this case, points or prizes within the game only. Because these games don't involve betting or winning money, they're not legally classified as gambling and remain unregulated.

"Adolescents' participation in seemingly risk-free social casino games is a concern because we know that early exposure to gambling activities is a risk factor for developing gambling problems in the future," says Dr. Tara Elton-Marshall, Scientist in CAMH's Institute for Mental Health Policy Research.

In a new CAMH study published this month in BMC Public Health, 12 per cent of teens in three Canadian provinces said they had played social casino games in the past three months. The findings are from a survey of 10,035 students in grades 9 to 12 (ages 13 to 19) in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. The survey asked about three game types: Internet poker, Internet slots and social casino games on Facebook.

The study also found that adolescents who participated in social casino games were significantly more likely to participate in monetary gambling, either online or land-based forms, compared with peers who did not play social casino games.

"While it's not clear whether young people begin in social casino games and move to gambling for money, or if adolescents who are gambling for money also seek out these free games, there is evidence that social casino gaming may build excitement for gambling and encourage the transition into monetary gambling," says Dr. Elton-Marshall, senior author of the study.

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