Pocket Money Punters

When I was ten years old it was quite normal to stick your 50p pocket money on a horse running in the Grand National, Dads would queue at the bookmakers placing bets for the whole family. I'd watch the race and cross my fingers that my each-way selection would romp home and I could empty the sweet shop with my winnings. It happened once when Corbiere won in 1983!

I was just one of a million ‘Pocket Money Punters' who had great fun that day. But should we be encouraging our children to bet?

What child hasn’t played in the penny arcades at the seaside or bet a friend his sweet money that he can beat him in a running race? From a very early age competition, winning and losing, are just another part of our daily lives. Many would argue that this is a good thing, preparing children for a future that will require competitiveness and a will to win, others on the other hand see it as something else entirely; the beginnings of a gambling addiction.

In terms of ‘serious’ betting The Grand National is the one event that nearly everyone gambles on and this includes children within families who may not normally bet, each picking a horse so that dad can pop into the local bookies on a Saturday afternoon in early April and place their bets for them. A bit of harmless fun surely?

But not everyone agrees. Some organisations believe that innocent games and a bit of gambling fun in childhood can go on to set a dangerous behavioural pattern that can ruin lives.

Earlier this year the BBC reported that: “Children and parents in part of Plymouth are being warned by police about gambling after reports of marble games being played with money instead.

Groups of up to 40 youngsters – some as young as five – in the North Prospect area have been playing the game, Pits.

It involves flicking marbles or coins into an open water meter cover, with winners taking all the items.

Police said children had been using £1 coins – prompting fears the game could lead to problems.”

Children playing marbles and wagering their pocket money on the result – is that really such a bad thing and hasn’t it always been like that?

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]This is something that shouldn’t be left to chance, with the rise of online gambling, there is clearly a need for children and young people to be given good advice.[/quote] The Gambling Bill allows 8 year olds to gamble unaccompanied by an adult on certain types of fruit machines and certainly you see this in seaside arcades all over the country. Penny droppers, fruit machines, horse racing machines, all there for the amusement of both children and adults alike. Even so, according to an NOP poll, 82% of the population believes that children and young people under 18 should not be allowed to play fruit machines at all, let alone bet on The Grand National.

It could be argued that arcades are a good place for children to learn about gambling in safety and that losing and winning small amounts teaches them that gambling is all about chance and that ultimately, for most people, if you keep gambling there is a high degree of probability that you will lose.

It could also be argued that gambling teaches other valuable lessons in maths and that some forms of gambling, where the events are staged outdoors, are both physically stimulating and beneficial to the health.

Gamcare, a gambling addiction support service, has proposed that children in schools should be taught about fruit machines, how to study sports teams to improve their chances of winning, and how to calculate odds. Shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, agrees that pupils need information to prepare them for the adult world and said recently:

“This is something that shouldn't be left to chance, with the rise of online gambling, there is clearly a need for children and young people to be given good advice.”

But just how early does this education need to start and just what would that advice be?

In America the State Government has ordered a review of toy poker machines after it was found that children as young as four were playing realistic toy bandit machines. In the UK an investigation by The Daily Telegraph discovered that toddlers were at risk of developing dangerous gambling habits by playing with toy poker machines. Replica slot and poker wheels are available in toyshops and supermarkets all over the country, and children use fake money and chips to pretend gamble. But does this really become the blueprint for a future gambling habit?

There is some evidence that the children of habitual gamblers are more likely to gamble and become habitual gamblers themselves. But this isn’t really any different from the children of heavy smokers and drinkers who often emulate their parents in later life – and of course it is just as likely that the opposite effect will happen, turning children away from habits they may have found disagreeable in their parents. Conversely many habitual gamblers come from families who have never placed a bet in their lives.

Gambling is part of our culture and has been since the earliest times. With the onset of online gambling it is far more likely to grow than decline and with around 61% of the adult population taking part in the national lottery gambling has become a national pastime. But that doesn’t mean we are all on the road to gambling bankruptcy.

An analysis by a leading gambling expert for the government’s policy commission on social justice recently found that 3.5 per cent of all youngsters aged 11 to 15 – around 100,000 children – are considered problem gamblers. However, this means that 96.5 per cent of children living in a Britain – where we allow children of any age to play slot machines with jackpots of up to £5, 16-year-olds to buy lottery tickets, scratch cards, and play the football pools – are not considered problem gamblers.

Like any social problem the answer lies in education and choice. Children must be allowed to learn the effects of chance and risk upon their lives and they must be given the opportunity to feel the thrill of winning and the negative impact of losing. As with all things moderation needs to be learnt and cut-off points recognised and defined.

Without an understanding of gambling and its effects, and without learning these valuable lessons there can be no choice, but even with this knowledge the odds are that there will be some children who become compulsive gamblers in adult life regardless.

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