With National Problem Gambling Week fast approaching (so soon?), the FoolProof Initiative, a finacial literacy project backed by the credit union industry, urges parents to look for "danger signs" that their kids are hooked on betting. According to a press release I received today, these red flags include questionable symptoms such as "a dramatic change in routine," "frequent use of gambling terminology," and possessing "an unusual supply" of cards and poker chips as well as more clearly relevant indicators such as "constantly visiting online gambling sites" and "frequently borrowing money, selling belongings, or financing gambling with credit card debt." To its credit, FoolProof's educational program seems to emphasize moderation rather than abstinence. "Without preaching," FoolProof says, "it teaches young people how to make wise decisions when it comes to gambling, and how to recognize problems in themselves and others." Yet FoolProof promotes that curriculum with absurdly alarmist claims:
GAMBLING PROBLEMS SKYROCKET IN YOUNG PEOPLE...
Gambling has...become a huge problem for kids as young as nine years old....
About 60% of high school students know a young person who gambles a lot.
22% of high school students admit they gamble "sometimes."
Up to 19% of 14-17 year-olds already show signs of problem gambling.
By 18, the vast majority of young people have gambled at least once.
FoolProof cites "sources for our statistics" at the bottom, but there is nothing to substantiate the headline's claim of a sharp upward trend in gambling problems among "young people." I'll suspend my disbelief regarding the second claim, since a single 9-year-old who squanders his allowance on lottery tickets would be enough to make it true. The third and fourth claims are based on "FoolProof's continual survey of high school students working through our Gambling module in Oklahoma." That sample may or may not be representative, but let's assume it is. If there is a "difference between social gambling and pathological gambling," as the "High School Gambling Fact Sheet" cited by FoolProof concedes, why should we be alarmed if one in five high school students occasionally bets on something (or if "the vast majority of young people have gambled at least once" by the time they are 18)?
As for the "young person who gambles a lot" that 60 percent of respondents said they know, playing poker once a week might be enough to qualify for that description. Even if gambling "a lot" is the same thing as "problem gambling," there is no way to figure out a prevalence rate based on this number. In theory, all of the respondents could be thinking of the same kid—maybe that 9-year-old lottery junkie. Then again, if it's really true that nearly one-fifth of teenagers ("up to 19%") "show signs of problem gambling," that suggests almost all occasional bettors ("22% of high school students") are in fact pathological gamblers or soon will be. That seems inconsistent with the fact sheet's statement that "the vast majority of players will gamble only on occasion and just for fun." More generally, FoolProof's anti-gambling hysteria clashes with its avowed commitment to realistic, nonpreachy, and genuinely informative education.