Unregulated online gambling attracting children, harm prevention agency says

A middle-aged boy who spent all night playing online games racked up $16,000 on his mother’s credit card, said Mapu Maia chief executive Pesio Ah-Honi.
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According to a support service, children as young as 11 are racking up thousands of dollars in debt due to online gambling.

The Mapu Maia director said there has been an increase in the number of school counselors and social workers approaching high school students and even some intermediate level children to express their concerns about the online gaming problem.

The organisation works to prevent harm caused by online gambling and said further research and support is needed as offshore gambling websites pose a particular risk.

Mapu Maia chief executive Pesio Ah-Honi said she was approached by distraught parents who had been keeping their child up all night playing online games.

“The parents of a child who was in the intermediate level, that is, between 11 and 12 years old, were very upset because he was falling asleep at school. He was not interacting with his family and was completely disconnected,” she said.

The boy had been using his mother’s credit card to fuel his online gaming habits.

“We found out that he had racked up over $16,000 on his mother’s credit card because he was spending it on online gambling and was up all night gambling,” she said.

Ah-Honi said thousands of young people and their parents used Mapu Maia’s services, but believed this was just the tip of the iceberg because many people were too embarrassed to talk about it.

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The service is designed to work with teenagers aged 13-17 and has a team of clinicians and health promoters who run a number of gambling harm programmes targeting young people across New Zealand.

Ah-Honi said sports betting sites were deliberately targeting young people.

“There are a lot of advertisements and marketing materials on the internet and in sports betting. I think marketing to young people is very widespread,” he said.

She said Control Social media was being used more frequently to engage young people.

“The industry is using these platforms to specifically target young people. They are not using social media to target the older generation. We believe that young people are specifically targeted when they use social media,” he said.

He said he understood that regulating online gambling sites would be a challenge for the government because many of them are based overseas, but said more education and support was needed.

Ah-Honi said problem gambling should also be included in the conversation about youth mental health.

“It’s moved a bit from the slot machines in community bars to online places where it’s not regulated. You can play in the privacy of your own home, you can play as a minor,” he said.

The Ministry of Health’s Strategy to Prevent and Minimise Harm from Gambling 2022/23 to 2024/25 says research into gambling in secondary school students found that one in three had participated in gambling at some point in their life.

The link between online gaming characteristics and gambling also poses risks for young people with gambling addiction problems.

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Tasmania-based professor Aaron Drummond, a former lecturer at the University of Waikato, said research in New Zealand, Australia and the United States indicated that people who showed signs of problem gambling were more likely to spend more money on online gaming features.

One of those problematic features is called ‘loot box‘.

“What we know about them is quite worrying. People who show symptoms of gambling addiction also tend to spend more on loot boxes, and recent evidence suggests that people who engage with these loot boxes are at higher risk of migrating to conventional gambling behaviours later on,” he said.

In Australia, online games that include loot boxes must be rated M.

Drummond said that on average, people spend between $10 and $12 a month on loot boxes, but some people have spent as much as $1,000 a month.

He said there had been an increase in the number of loot boxes appearing in games.

“What we found that was interesting was that income didn’t affect how much money people spent on loot boxes. In fact, it was the case that across all income levels, the biggest spenders were always people with the most severe symptoms of gambling addiction, so loot boxes tend to be disproportionately attractive to people who have trouble controlling their gambling behaviors,” he said.

The Problem Gambling Foundation said it had noticed an increase in the number of young clients under 25 seeking help for harm caused by online gambling.

The current Gambling Act of 2003 was outdated and did not include any mention of the current online gambling scene, they said.

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In a statement to ControlThe Department of Home Affairs said that “in March this year, the Cabinet took a decision in principle to regulate online casino gaming.”

“The department is supporting the Home Secretary to prepare a report to Cabinet on the high-level design of the regulatory system.”

He said he was “conscious of the need to ensure that operators have effective age verification systems, and tools to minimise harmful gambling will be a key component of the new regulations.”

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