Kimberly Palmer: Gambling risks rise for young people. How to lower the stakes

For Ambus Hunter, what started as a fun trip to Las Vegas when he was 25 soon turned into a gambling addiction. “I got consumed with the vibes,” he says, recalling how he loved the feeling of winning at first. He began gambling back home in the Midwest and on business trips, playing roulette whenever possible. He burned through thousands of dollars of savings before realizing he needed to find a way to stop.

Now fully financially recovered at 37, Hunter works as an accredited financial counselor in Baltimore, helping other people recover their finances that have been damaged by problematic gambling. “I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with money,” he says, lessons he helps others apply to their own lives and budgets.

Gambling is a growing problem among young adults, according to experts, largely because sports betting and other forms of online wagering are so easily accessible. “More and more youth are becoming vulnerable to gambling and problem gambling. It’s a social contagion,” says Dorothy Nuckols, who teaches personal finance for the University of Maryland Extension in Central Maryland.

Here’s how experts suggest parents can help teenagers and young adults avoid the risks of gambling:


Like sex and drugs, gambling should be on the list of topics to tackle with your children, says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist, parenting expert and author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.” While gambling might start out as a fun way to raise the stakes on sports viewing with friends, it can quickly spin out of control, she says. Damour considers gambling to be such a prevalent problem among teenagers that she dedicated an episode of her podcast, “Ask Lisa,” to it.

“It’s very easy for kids to go underground with this,” as kids often hide risky behavior from their parents, Damour says. “It’s usually better if we’re having open conversations about the risks to which they have access, and better if our kids see us as allies in keeping them safe and helping them make better decisions.”

That means talking about the downsides of gambling, such as losing a lot of money, versus banning them from participating at all, which can backfire, Damour says. “If they want to do these things, we can’t stop them,” she adds.


While giving a lottery ticket as a gift to a child or organizing a fantasy football game for a group of kids might seem harmless, doing so can plant the seeds of gambling addiction, says Jeffrey Derevensky, director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University.

“One of the early predictors for gambling problems is an early big win,” Derevensky says, such as winning $50 on a lottery ticket at age 12. As a result, he urges parents to avoid purchasing lottery tickets for children, even as a last-minute gift.

“We are trying to delay the onset of gambling until people have the cognitive skills to set limits,” Derevensky says. “If you don’t gamble, you can’t become a problem gambler.”


Parents can also make sure underage minors still living at home don’t gamble online by blocking gambling sites and not providing access to a credit card, which is generally required before placing bets. “We found many young people are using their parents’ credit card to gamble,” Derevensky says.

Cait DeBaun, vice president of strategic communications and responsibility for the American Gaming Association, said in an email that online gambling is for adults only. Legal gambling websites verify the age and identity of participants, which isn’t necessarily the case for unregulated operators.

Parents should never provide their own credentials to allow children to gamble, she added. Not only is it against the law, but it “puts an adult product in the hands of a vulnerable population.”


If your teenager or young adult seems preoccupied with gambling to the degree that it’s having a negative impact on other aspects of their life, then it might be time to seek help, Nuckols says. “It’s really personal as to what crosses the line,” she says. Red flags can include increased anxiety, losing sleep, gambling in secret and using digital currency to hide funds.

Hunter says that at the height of his own gambling addiction, he struggled with shame and embarrassment. He encourages people in a similar situation to seek out support networks like the National Council on Problem Gambling’s 1-800-GAMBLER line, which offers free and confidential help. The organization also offers a free screening tool on its website to help people determine whether they should get help.

Hunter says taking advantage of these free resources can help people overcome problem gambling by giving them a sense of community support. “You don’t have to do it alone,” he says.


This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Kimberly Palmer is a personal finance expert at NerdWallet and the author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom.” Email: X: @KimberlyPalmer.


NerdWallet: When your income drops, here’s how to bounce back

National Council on Problem Gambling: Self-Assessment Tool