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Universities grapple with the surge of gambling addiction in students due to the widespread proliferation of sports betting

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, three in four college students engaged in gambling within the past year, whether legally or not. While an estimated 2% to 3% of U.S. adults grapple with gambling issues, the prevalence among college students could potentially be double that figure, reaching up to 6%.

As someone specializing in educational psychology and closely monitoring gambling trends in the United States, I foresee an escalating concern regarding gambling on campuses. The expansion of sports betting, including on college grounds, has gained momentum since the 2018 Supreme Court decision permitting states to legalize it.

In my role as a faculty fellow at an institute advocating responsible gaming, I understand the importance of colleges taking proactive measures to address problem gambling among students. This urgency is heightened by the vulnerability of adolescents, including college students, who are particularly susceptible to gambling problems due to exposure to video games with gambling-like elements and the stress of college life, leading some to resort to gambling as a coping mechanism.

As of November 2023, sports betting is now legal in some form in 38 states and Washington, D.C., with 26 states allowing online sports betting. Bills have been introduced, and in some cases passed, in additional states such as Vermont, Missouri, and North Carolina. The widespread accessibility of sports betting online and via smartphones has contributed to more than $268 billion legally gambled between June 2018 and November 2023. The gaming sector’s revenue has seen significant overall growth, with sports betting leading at an estimated 75% annual increase and contributing approximately $3.9 billion in tax revenue to date.

Moreover, the New York Times has reported that sports betting companies and universities have effectively transformed college life into a casino-like environment, with online gambling becoming an integral part of student experiences.

These profits have led to a surge in advertising, with some projections indicating that the total advertising expenditure across all media channels could reach approximately $3 billion annually. This encompasses platforms like TikTok, a popular social media outlet among young adults, where gambling-related ads are prominently featured. A study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that 72% of individuals aged 18 to 24 have encountered gambling advertisements on social media.

Despite advertisers ostensibly targeting young adults within the legal age bracket, research suggests that children under 18 are also being exposed to gambling-related advertising. The extensive activity of advertising on social media has raised concerns and attracted scrutiny. Earlier this year, prosecutors in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office voiced apprehension about the potential rapid spread of sports betting and other forms of gambling on college campuses due to aggressive advertising.

The heightened risk of gambling addiction among college students is a noteworthy concern. While gambling addiction can affect individuals across diverse backgrounds and age groups, it poses an even greater threat to college students. The unique developmental factors affecting adolescents of college age make them more prone to engaging in impulsive or risky behaviors, rendering them more susceptible to taking significant risks and facing adverse consequences.

The prevalence of alcohol consumption on college campuses is no secret, and this factor can elevate the likelihood of engaging in other risk-taking behaviors, such as gambling. Similar to other addictive behaviors, gambling has the capacity to stimulate the brain’s reward centers, making it challenging for individuals to cease despite accumulating losses.

How colleges and universities can provide assistance

If there is concern that a student may be grappling with a gambling issue, the Mayo Clinic outlines signs to observe, such as restlessness or irritability when attempting to cut down on gambling, an escalation in gambling during periods of distress, and dishonesty to conceal gambling activities or financial losses. Gamblers Anonymous offers a 20-question self-diagnostic tool to aid in identifying potential problems or compulsive gambling tendencies.

Numerous resources are available for individuals dealing with gambling problems, with organizations like the Gateway Foundation providing information and support. Immediate assistance can be sought through the national problem gambling helpline at 1-800-GAMBLER. The National Council on Problem Gaming offers state-specific resource lists for more localized support.

At the Miami University Institute for Responsible Gaming, Lottery, and Sport, my colleagues and I are dedicated to ensuring that the recent substantial expansion of legalized gaming is accompanied by effective guidance for policymakers and higher education leaders. Recognizing the impact of widespread legalized sports betting and gambling on students, institutions like the University of Oregon are taking steps to address these concerns. A comprehensive and coordinated approach is essential to safeguard students from potential harm.

Institutions can utilize various resources, such as the “get set before you bet” initiative implemented by the University of Colorado, Boulder, and others. This initiative provides students with practical tips, like setting time and money limits before engaging in gambling activities.

Colleges and universities have the potential to do more. According to the International Center for Responsible Gaming, institutions can mitigate gambling risks to students by:

  1. Establishing clear gambling policies aligned with alcohol policies, as exemplified by Arizona State’s prohibition of legal and illegal gambling at ASU-related events, coupled with reinforcement of the illegality of alcohol possession for students under 21.
  2. Raising awareness of addiction as a mental health disorder and ensuring accessible resources for seeking help.
  3. Equipping campus counseling and health services staff with knowledge about gambling addiction to support students facing addiction or problematic behaviors, recognizing the possible coexistence of multiple addictions.
  4. Conducting surveys to gauge student attitudes toward gambling, tracking changes in behaviors, attitudes, and norms.

With various sports championships occurring throughout the academic year, including baseball, football, and college basketball, universities have ample opportunities to engage with students regarding sports betting on campus. While gambling addiction is treatable, prevention remains the most effective solution.

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