Gambling Can Be Risky Business for Teens and Young Adults: A Q&A With Dr. Lipi Roy, an Expert in Addiction Medicine

Online sports betting has become an increasingly popular activity for many young people (18+) due to expanded accessibility and legalization, but the mental health impacts could be troubling.

Youth exposed to gambling as young as 12 are four times more likely to develop an addiction into adulthood and have a greater likelihood of substance misuse.  Student-athletes are at a unique risk of engaging in sports betting as they tend to be more drawn to sports gambling than their non-athlete counterparts. Among all addictions, youth gambling is linked to the highest suicide rate.

Participating in sports as a fan does offer some mental health benefits including increased self-esteem, stronger family relationships, and cultural connection or a sense of belonging.

The Jed Foundation (JED) had a conversation with Lipi Roy, MD, a JED expert who is certified in addiction medicine, about gambling, its impact on young people, and what to do if you’re concerned about a loved one with a gambling disorder.

Q: What is gambling and what does a gambling addiction look like?

A: Gambling is the wagering of something valuable (e.g., money) on an event with an uncertain outcome, and it has become a very common and socially acceptable activity for teenagers and young adults. Lotteries and sporting events can be enjoyable, even exhilarating for some, but they can also lead to risky, self-destructive behaviors in others.

Gambling addiction, also known as “gambling disorder,” can drain finances, shatter personal and professional relationships, and harm one’s mental health. A gambling disorder is defined by continued participation in a behavior despite adverse consequences, compulsiveness, reduced self-control, and cravings for the activity.

Q: Is there a healthy and safe way to engage in gambling? 

A: It is important to remember that while any activity that brings pleasure, like gambling, holds the risk of addiction, it is relatively small. You shouldn’t be alarmed if your teen or young adult experiments with gambling or sports betting. In a world where gambling is so ubiquitous (e.g., casinos, bingo, fantasy sports, or raffles), experimenting with gambling behavior is normal.

Nevertheless, those who become addicted can face severe personal, professional, financial, and psychological repercussions. Gambling disorder is associated with an increased risk of suicide, so it is crucial that if you or a loved one is going to engage in this activity, you understand the signs and symptoms of risky gambling behavior and, ultimately, addiction. 

Q: Why are teens and young adults more vulnerable to gambling addiction? 

A: While gambling disorders only affect 1% of Americans, the risk of developing this addiction is higher for young adults as their brains are continuing to develop well into their 20s.

Adolescence is a time of dramatic physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. It is also a time of growing independence, including experimenting with drugs, alcohol, or gambling. Like drugs, gambling affects the brain’s pleasure centers, releasing dopamine. We know that children who are introduced as young as 12 to betting are four times more likely to develop a problem with gambling into adulthood.

Q: How can a parent or caring adult talk to a teen or young adult about gambling?

A: As a parent or caring adult, you first need to understand the signs and symptoms of gambling disorder. Treatment, while available, may take time. Set boundaries by managing money, phone time, or extracurricular activities. Speak calmly and explain you are there to help them. 

Try to avoid any preaching or lecturing, emotional outbursts like anger, excluding your child from the family, or expecting an immediate recovery. We know these conversations may be challenging, but showing up for your child in a calm, vulnerable, and empathic manner will make all the difference.

Q: How do you know if someone has a gambling problem, and what is the best way to help them?

A: Gambling addiction is diagnosed when a person exhibits at least four of the following behaviors in the past year:

  • A need to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired excitement
  • Restlessness or irritability when trying to cut down or stop gambling
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to control, cut back on, or stop gambling
  • Frequent thoughts about gambling (e.g., reliving or planning future gambling)
  • Often gambling when feeling distressed (e.g., feeling helpless, guilty, or depressed)
  • Returning to gambling after losing money (e.g., “chasing one’s losses”)
  • Lying to hide gambling activity
  • Risking or losing a close relationship, job, or career opportunity and/or experiencing a drop in grades as a result of gambling
  • Relying on others to help with money problems caused by gambling

Those more susceptible to a gambling disorder include men, adolescents, those with a family history of gambling addiction, and those with a personal history of addiction or mental illness. 

The best way to help someone is to start with an open and honest conversation. JED’s Mental Health Resource Center offers tools and essential information that can help people initiate difficult conversations about mental health. If someone is at risk for attempting suicide, call or text 988 immediately.

The good news is that help is available through psychotherapy, medications, or support groups. While addiction is difficult, most people who receive the appropriate treatment and care get better. Remember, there is no shame in asking for help. 

brown complexion woman with shoulder length black hair smiling, arms crossed, wearing red, black and white checkered blouse

Lipi Roy, MD, MPH, FASAM is an internal medicine physician board-certified in addiction medicine, a sought-after international speaker, media personality, and host of YouTube’s Health, Humor and Harmony. Dr. Roy currently serves as a Medical Director at Housing Works in New York City, as well as a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health.

Dr. Roy’s work spans academia, clinical medicine, homeless health, social and criminal justice, public speaking, media, and entertainment. She is the  former Chief of Addiction Medicine for Rikers Island jail complex. Previously, Dr. Roy served as a primary care doctor to Boston’s homeless population, attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and  faculty at Harvard Medical School. 

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.