Flawed Underage Gambling Stats Sends UK Media into Meltdown

Yesterday´s unjustified media hysteria about underage gambling in the UK could prevent support being provided for those who need it the most.

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Gambling Commission

Yesterday´s unjustified media hysteria about underage gambling in the UK could prevent support being provided for those who need it the most.

Yesterday, the UK´s Gambling Commission published the results of a study into the gambling habits of children between the ages of 11 and 16. The report – “Young People and Gambling 2018” (PDF) – claimed there had been an increase in underage gambling activity from the previous year and calculated that approximately 450,000 school-age children nationwide bet regularly every week.

Based on the Fisher Test for identifying problem gambling in adolescents (DSM-IV-MR-J – PDF), the report claimed 55,000 children are problem gamblers and that a further 70,000 children are “at risk” gamblers – a four-fold increase from a similar Gambling Commission study in 2016. The “headline findings” attracted the attention of the UK´s media, which subsequently went into meltdown.

How the Media (Over)Reacted to the Report

By yesterday afternoon, every headline-desperate media outlet had latched onto the headline findings. The alleged four-fold increase in adolescent problem gambling was covered by national tabloid newspapers and on national television. Reporters looking for new angles on the story involved the church, anti-gambling organizations, and politicians in order to make to make their versions of the story more sensational than the last; and, by the end of the day, “almost a million children” were affected.

Depending on which “expert” was being interviewed, the alleged increase in gambling activity was attributable to online gambling, increased TV advertising, video game loot boxes, or the children’s parents. Although many of these theories were subsequently disproved by real experts, by then it was too late. The “news” had been widely distributed by social media and widely believed by people who have no understanding of problem gambling, how it develops, and the damage it can cause.

Underage Gambling Statistics Proven to be Flawed

Among the real experts to thoroughly analyse the Gambling Commission´s report was Christopher Snowdon – the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Writing for his “Velvet Glove, Iron Fist” blog, Snowdon investigated the claim problem gambling among children had increased fourfold and found that – had the Gambling Commission used “apples-for-apples” comparisons – the actual percentage of children classed as “problem” or “at risk” would have decreased.

Snowdon highlighted that the age group of children surveyed had increased from 11 to 15 years old, to 11 to 16 years old between 2016 and 2018, and noted a high percentage of 16 year olds accounted for much of the increase – many of whom were gambling legally. He also noted that, other than legal lottery scratch cards, Category D amusements (which have a 10p maximum stake), and private bets, every type of gambling covered by the report had a prevalence of 1% or less.

However, the biggest flaw in the reporting of the study related to children being given the option to complete the survey online. This is the first year the online option had been made available, and while most children took advantage of it, some still completed their surveys on paper. A comparison of paper surveys revealed the percentage of respondents classified as having a problem fell from 0.9% to 0.6% – a reduction of 33% rather than the reported increase of 300%.

The Consequences of Misreporting Gambling Statistics

There could be reasons for the apparent decline in problem gambling among children. It is quite possible the paper surveys were completed by younger children who were less familiar with computers. Younger children have a lower gambling prevalence and, as only those who had gambled in the past were set the Fisher Test, this could explain why the statistics show a paper reduction of 33%. The Commission claims the online survey is more accurate, but until it is conducted next year, we will never know.

Consequently, the headline findings of this year´s report should be disregarded. If they are not, the report could be used as a flawed basis for political decision-making – overseas as well as domestically. This could prevent support being provided for those who need it the most if efforts to resolve childhood problem gambling are channelled in the wrong direction. There may not be as many children at risk as previously believed, but taking the wrong course of action could cause more harm than good.

For all its faults, at least the Gambling Commission´s report has brought the discussion about problem gambling into the public domain. It´s not the “generational scandal” being claimed by some anti-gambling campaigners, but if greater awareness of the problem results in one less child becoming addicted to gambling, then that´s surely a good thing. Unfortunately news such as “child doesn´t become problem gambler” won´t satisfy the cravings of headline-desperate media outlets.

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