Despite having a CAP code which states clearly that marketing communications for gambling must be socially responsible, with particular regard to the need to protect children, young persons and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited, gambling companies are finding ways around it and children as young as 11 are becoming problem gamblers. 

The latest stats claim that an estimated 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 that have been identified as problem gamblers, with another 36,000 at risk of developing a problem. Shocking. 

In fact a recent report by the Gambling Commission in 2017 warned that “Britain is sleepwalking into a public health storm.”

Children are spending an average of £10 on gambling per week, and an estimated 11% of children are taking part in what is called ‘skin betting’; this involves betting in-game items, such as weapons and clothing, that can have actual monetary value. That innocent game you downloaded for your child to pass the time with could be priming them. Gaming (or gambling in many cases) is becoming increasingly desirable and accessible for children, with age restrictions becoming seemingly ineffective. Exacerbating this issue is the way in which gambling is being marketed, both through the obvious betting services and the more subtle Facebook games and smartphone apps.

The marketing of gambling

Gambling advertisements can be hard to escape, with 80% of children reporting seeing them on television and 70% on social media. However, advertisements are not always so obvious and often promote seemingly harmless apps and games which don’t necessarily require money to play; for example, roulette or fruit machine style games. These games are readily available, with 1 in 10 children having played these through Facebook or smartphone apps.

Although these don’t require money to play initially, they encourage the user to engage with the games more frequently in order to experience the ‘rush’ of winning, which is associated with problem gambling. Many games also have a limited number of plays and so once the user has used all of their ‘plays’, they are required to wait for a period of time before they can play again. Alternatively, players can pay money to play the game sooner, and due to their addictive nature, many users do this in order to carry on playing and reap their rewards. In other words, users spend money in the hope of winning a more valued reward – sound familiar?

These Facebook games and smartphone apps are therefore acting as gateways to enabling gambling behaviours, making it no surprise that children who play these types of games are more likely to gamble in the future. Frequent advertisements of these easily accessible games encourage children and young people to engage with them more, thus putting them at a greater risk of developing problematic behaviours in the future. This is particularly true when these advertisements involve cartoons and child-friendly images.

Marketing towards younger audiences

The CAP code states that marketing communications for gambling:

“Must not be likely to be of particular appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture.”

This code would suggest that marketing of gambling services should be adult-themed and tailored to an older audience. Some adverts however, use cartoon characters with names such as ‘Pirate Princess’ and ‘Fluffy Favourites’; these are largely considered to be appealing to children and young people under the age of 18, thereby breaking the code set out by the CAP. Interestingly, not a lot is being done to challenge companies doing this. A lack of watershed or online restrictions means that many children are susceptible to these either through television or social media and can be lured into engaging with the sites being advertised. In response, the Gambling Commission and Remote Gambling Association sent a letter in 2017 to over 450 operators, warning them of these adverts and asking to take them down. 

The prevalence of child gambling is clearly on the rise, and the marketing of seemingly harmless games is a major issue, particularly when these advertisements are appealing to children and young people. Without tighter restrictions both online and on television, the problem is likely to increase, with more and more children developing problematic gambling behaviours both in their youth and as adults. 

Time for some robust action. If we cannot encourage companies to do the right thing. We must force them.