Children as young as 11 are in danger of becoming addicted to gambling by playing online gambling games that manipulate them into staking real money.
Parents are being warned of a “hidden epidemic” of gambling among children, with campaigners petitioning the Prime Minister to take urgent action on online games.
Half of children between the ages of 11 and 18 said they’ve bought “loot boxes” in online games - virtual lucky dips that may contain rare costumes or other items - which the Gambling Commission has said often fit the legal definition of gambling.
The research by the Safer Online Gambling Group (SOGG) also estimated families could be losing more than £270m each year through loot boxes alone, with the average spend on in-game content per person estimated at £500-600 per year.
The campaign’s director Adam Bradford travelled from Sheffield to 10 Downing Street this week to hand in a petition calling for more controls on online games and aiming to raise awareness among parents of the risks of online games.
He said: “As we’ve been looking deeper and deeper into the issue we’ve noticed that there’s becoming this crossover between gaming and gambling and the two worlds should really be separate. There should be no element of gambling in there at all, nothing that even mimics it.”
While it was too early to say there was a specific link between playing these games and developing a gambling addiction, Mr Bradford said he had met many people where this had been the case.
Eytan Alexander, managing director at addiction treatment firm UKAT, who is in recovery himself from gambling addiction, said: "Unfortunately what we're seeing across our rehab facilities is more and more gaming and gambling addicts who lost their power of choice when it comes to these habits at a young age, and for some, even during childhood.”
Mr Alexander said admissions for these two types of addictions had risen significantly in the last year alone.
“For gamers, we've seen a 37 per cent annual rise and for gamblers, a 71 per cent annual rise. The majority of the people we treated last year for gaming were under the age of 30.
"Developing unhealthy relationships with gaming and gambling at a young age presents significant difficulties later in life including a willingness to experiment with other 'habits' or even substances, a loss of education, social isolation and under-developed interpersonal skills, anxiety, financial hardship and severance of relationships with family and friends.”
Mr Bradford said a problem can arise when parents are not aware that these games are some of the most popular in the playground.
He added: “Parents have told us that their kids are feeling pressured, there’s a social pressure among their peers to have the latest weapons, the latest players,” said Mr Bradford, who became a gambling addiction campaigner after his father David served a prison sentence in 2014 for stealing money to pay for his out of control gambling addiction. The former financial controller had racked up hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of debt through loans, remortgaging his house and betting for more than 30 years in secret and left his family to pick up the pieces. The pair have campaigned against Fixed Odds Betting Terminals and lobbied for tighter regulation on online gambling.
A spokesman for the Gambling Commission told the Yorkshire Post: “Where in-game items that are derived from loot boxes can be readily exchanged for cash, the loot boxes themselves are likely to fall within the definition of gambling.”
The organisation added: “We are concerned with the growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred and where we are clear that a product has passed the line into gambling and is posing a risk to players, we will take action.”
In 2017, the Gambling Commission brought the first criminal prosecution of a games company that had children among its customers.
For more information and support with gaming addiction, visit www.ukat.co.uk/gaming-addiction/
For more information with gambling addiction, visit www.ukat.co.uk/gambling-addiction/