What American Schools Should Be Teaching Young People About Gambling

In the not-so-distant future, gambling education could become as common a feature of public school curriculums as sex and drug education are currently. Responsible gambling consultant and After Gambling Podcast host Jamie Salsburg says he expects it to become a trend in the US within 18 to 36 months. Yet, even sex education is a highly contentious subject in the US. There will inevitably be heated debates about what information it’s reasonable to provide to kids about gambling, who should provide it, and when and how.

Virginia is the first state grappling with that issue. In 2022, House Bill 1108 made gambling education compulsory for public schools. However, the Board of Education is still hammering out how it will work.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere, especially in states that, like Virginia, have recently expanded their gambling options. A bill in the Michigan Senate would instruct the Department of Education to develop a curriculum and make it available to school districts and public academies. One in New Jersey would make gambling education mandatory at colleges if they wish to have business relationships with sports betting companies. Maryland has also been trying, albeit without success.

America Needs to Get Gambling Education Right

Discussing the topic on Twitter, I expressed the worry that if gambling education becomes synonymous with gambling prevention messaging, it will be ineffective. Kids will tune out. Salsburg – a frequent interviewee here at Bonus – said he shared my concerns.

A conversation ensued, and this article is the outcome of that talk. We were joined by Julie Hynes, a former risk prevention specialist for schools who has teenage children of her own. Currently, she works in responsible gambling but was speaking in a personal capacity.

Salsburg told me:

The key is going to be to try different types of education. So many times, people lead with harm reduction, saying that we need to teach about the harms of gambling. That’s where I throw my hands up and say, ‘wait.’ That’s an important part of it, but I don’t think we should have that be 100% of the education.

This isn’t a new idea or one that’s unique to gambling. There’s growing evidence in other areas – like sex and drug education – that a positive approach produces better results than issuing dire warnings about the hazards.

A 23-Year-Old Proposal From the Harvard Corporation

Hynes pointed out that in 2000, the President and Fellows of Harvard College (aka the Harvard Corporation) released a prototype curriculum called Facing the Odds: the Mathematics of Gambling. A team of seven produced the paper, led by Matthew Hall and Joni Vander Bilt, who built off of work by mathematicians at Northern Arizona University.

The curriculum begins with an explanation of its philosophy. In it, the writers expressly acknowledge the shortcomings of a prevention-based approach:

This curriculum takes a very different approach to addictive behaviors than most traditional prevention-oriented drug and alcohol curricula. Evidence from research suggests that health classes that teach the hazards associated with drug use are not effective: students do not diminish their involvement with psychoactive substances as a result of experiencing these classes. Unlike these traditional approaches, which usually emphasize the health benefits associated with avoiding addictive behaviors or attach particular values to behaviors (i.e., good vs. bad drugs), this curriculum focuses on science and mathematics, using gambling and the media as the means of presenting these concepts.

Sadly, few US schools have adopted any of its recommendations. Twenty-three years later, it has also become somewhat out-of-date. It emphasizes lottery products, which were the only legal form of gambling in many states in 2000. To be timely, a modern curriculum would need to feature sports betting prominently alongside casino games, lotteries and poker.

What remains relevant and important is the connection between gambling, mathematics, and other forms of risk-taking. The curriculum emphasizes concepts like:

  • Different kinds of averages and “spread” (variance)
  • A sense for the relative size of large numbers (e.g., millions vs. billions)
  • Probability and randomness
  • Complementary and mutually exclusive events

It applies those concepts equally to gambling-related topics like one’s odds of winning the lottery and to other types of risk like the increased chances of cancer due to smoking.

Gambling Education Starts at Home

Salsburg also stressed the importance of drawing parallels between gambling and other types of risks in life. To him, that’s a conversation that parents can have with their kids at home:

If parents just try to tackle sports betting and parlays, it’s going to feel overwhelming. But if they really look in their everyday life, they’re going to find moments where their kids are just making decisions and taking risks. Those are opportunities to talk to their kids about how they evaluated the situation, why they made a decision. It’s not to criticize the kids, but get them to think. As parents, if we can get our kids to think, we’re going to set them up for success down the road.

He says he began teaching his children about gambling early on, starting with a question his son had about a lottery terminal at the supermarket. Although he envisions a rapid expansion of gambling education in the US school system in the coming years, he sees parents as the first line of defense for kids in a world where the pressure to gamble seems inescapable.

Ads for sportsbooks and online casinos might be new. However, kids have always been exposed to gambling-like products, including ones marketed explicitly to them. Salsburg sees these as a good place to start the conversation.

Every kid likes the claw machine. Every kid likes the blind bags, whether that’s Thomas the Tank Engine or LOL Dolls… for us it was sports cards. Every parent, if you look back at your childhood, there was something we had that was gambling in nature.

Like Salsburg, Hynes thinks harm reduction starts at home:

Alcohol, other substance use, and risky sexual behavior all share a host of risk and protective factors with youth gambling. Some of these factors include parental engagement in and/or history of problems with the behavior, favorable attitudes toward the behavior, lack of parental involvement, peer influences, and impulse control issues. On the flip side, parental monitoring, family support, disapproval of the behavior, and school connectedness are a few examples of factors that buffer risk.

The Logic and Illogic of Gambling

Mathematical lessons in gambling are essential, as a poor understanding of the odds can lead to problems. However, self-understanding is just as important. The emotional highs and lows that gambling provokes are what ultimately drive the addiction cycle.

Therefore, a complete gambling education program would have to go beyond the Harvard Corporation proposal. Math class is an excellent place to start, but Salsburg thinks most subjects could include gambling modules. He said:

We need a holistic view of things. If we focus too much on the product, we lose track of that emotional component. On the other hand, if we focus on the emotions, we miss important things like how poker is different from a slot machine.

Emotional intelligence, as applied to gambling, also includes understanding how gambling operators leverage emotion in their marketing. Salsburg thinks such skills would also benefit students in other areas of life:

If we look at the bigger picture, maybe we just need better consumer education. What is this person selling me? What are they getting out of it? What am I getting out of it? How are they nudging me to make a decision? Whether you’re talking about buying a pair of sneakers, playing a video game, or gambling, some of these things cross those lines.

The US: a Uniquely Challenging Environment

Although it’s a relatively new topic everywhere, some countries are ahead of the US in gambling education. In the United Kingdom, for instance, lawmakers have legislated for it to be added to the personal, social, health and economic education curriculum nationally.

Part of the reason for that is that the UK has had a liberalized gambling market for much longer, and gambling addiction is very much a part of the mainstream conversation. However, there are also political impediments to a comprehensive gambling education in the US. For evidence of that, we need to look no further than existing sex and drug education programs.

Based on her experience, Hynes has concerns about the logistics of implementing gambling education:

Lack of funding, spotty health education requirements, and time constraints are what I’d say are the biggest barriers in getting youth gambling curriculum into schools. Each state has its own health education requirements, and educators are already swamped with what they can provide.

Regarding spotty requirements, there are still 19 states mandating that sex education must focus on abstinence over safe sex. This includes some otherwise-progressive states like Michigan, notably at the forefront of gambling expansion.

Similarly, many drug education curriculums seek to scare students into avoiding drugs rather than offering them information. Prevention research has found such tactics to be ineffective.

Hynes said:

There’s a continued desire to do something flashy. For instance, research shows that putting crashed cars on campus before prom is a short-term deterrent to drunk driving, but has zero long-term effect. Those one-shot deals are far sexier than the slog of effective, long-term investments of good prevention practice.

She also worries that educators are overwhelmed as it is, so adding gambling as a separate topic may be too much.

This is why some prevention specialists have worked to integrate problem gambling prevention material into AOD curricula; they can include the language of gambling into other evidence-based curricula that address aforementioned shared risk factors and include such skill building as refusal skills, decision making, and media literacy.

Gambling and Video Games: a Double-Edged Sword

Scare tactics are particularly ineffective when the target of the message has already had positive experiences with the thing in question. Hynes sees this as the case when it comes to teens and gambling:

There is still a lot of abstinence-only thinking out there when it comes to gambling and, especially at the high school level, this can be quite unrealistic. By high school, lots of young people have already gambled.

This isn’t only the claw machines and blind bags mentioned by Salsburg. Many high schoolers will, for instance, have played scratch-off lottery tickets or placed casual sports bets with friends. And then there are video games.

Video game “loot boxes” have been a frequent target of lawsuits. In some jurisdictions, there have even been attempts to legislate against such real-money purchases of randomized virtual items. However, they’re only one example of the many ways video games incorporate simulated gambling or gambling-like features.

Both Salsburg and Hynes raised the topic of video gaming. Salsburg mentioned his son’s experiences:

My son plays NBA2K and in there, there’s a pick’em where you can win in-game currency if you call the games of the week correctly. We’ve played other games and there are definitely more gambling features in them than there used to be, some explicit, some less so.

Hynes mentions Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto as examples of franchises that include simulated gambling in their narratives. She says parents and educators have a lot of concerns about such games. By the same token, though, she thinks they might provide the necessary hook to get gambling education into schools.

Just as recently as a couple years ago, most adults didn’t think kids were gambling. That said, while parents and educators are starting to see sports wagering as an issue among young people, you’ll almost invariably still find that parents and educators still view video gaming as a far greater concern overall for youth.

In other words, start with safer gaming, and let the topics of gambling – and Salsburg’s holistic consumer education – flow naturally from that.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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