In the UK last year, the Daily Mail newspaper published a story about Facebook introducing gambling services and the potential effect on children and adolescents. The Mail reported that the world’s biggest social network site was using Britain as a testing ground for games that would let users gamble on virtual fruit machines, bingo, poker and roulette. Given my research into youth gambling I was contacted by the paper and spoke at length to the journalist and sent him some of my papers on gambling on social networking sites. I have written a number of papers examining the playing of gambling-type games on social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo, and have concluded that the non-money games that children play online may also be of concern. In the end, only one quote of mine made it into the story. I pointed out that even when no money changes hands, young children are learning the mechanics of gambling, and that these games could be a gateway to more serious gambling.
On what basis do I make these claims? Across the world, the social networking phenomenon has spread rapidly. When it comes to gambling and gambling-like games, researchers have claimed that such games have the potential to ‘normalize’ gambling behaviors, and that the playing of them may change social understandings of the role of gambling amongst young people.
While socially responsible gambling emphasizes that money spent gambling may not offer a return other than the pleasure gained from the game, social networking utilities can present gambling as a viable route for the acquisition of scarce virtual goods. Dr Carolyn Downs of Salford University has written about a type of pseudo-gambling among Fluff Friends. In this social networking forum, users (typically young girls) create ‘Fluff’ Art. To do this they have to earn ‘munny’ (sic) – a type of virtual money through pet racing. Pet racing costs 1-point per race and winnings can be up to 4000 points. Clearly no money is changing hands, but young children are learning the mechanics of gambling and Dr Downs asserts there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes toward gambling in young people.
This raises interesting questions that need to be empirically examined. For instance, does gambling with virtual money lead to an increased prevalence of actual gambling? To what extent are gambling-related groups on social networking sites being used by those under 18 years of age? Does membership of such a groups facilitate access to commercial gambling sites?
Empirical evidence suggests that ‘money free’ gambling plays an important role for adolescents in conceptualizing and experiencing internet gambling. Over one in three British adolescents have been reported to gamble in money-free mode. A study by Ipsos MORI reported that 28% of 11- to 15-year olds in a United Kingdom sample had done so within the last week. It is through money-free gambling (using social networking sites or ‘demo’ modes of real gambling sites) that children are being introduced to the principles and excitement of gambling without experiencing the consequences of losing money. Using the Ipsos MORI data, researchers from Salford University carried out some further analysis and reported that gambling in money-free mode was the single most important predictor of whether the child had gambled for money and one of the most important predictors of children’s problem gambling. However, the possibility and extent to which money-free gambling is responsible for real gambling participation and gambling-related risk and harm can only be confirmed using longitudinal data.
Based on the available literature, it may be important to distinguish between these different types of money-free gambling being made available. Initial considerations suggest that these may be different both in nature and in impact. Adolescents who gamble in social networking modes may experience a different type and level of reinforcement than those gambling in ‘demo’ modes. For example, on some social networking sites the accumulation of ‘play money’ or ‘points’ may have implications for buying virtual goods or services or being eligible for certain privileges. This may increase the value and meaning of the gambling event to the individual.
Secondly, when considering the ‘flow’ and intention of individuals accessing such sites, it could be argued that individuals accessing money free gambling through social networking sites may be more likely to be induced or persuaded to play given that these web-site visitors’ primary intention may have been social interaction (i.e., the primary function of the website) as opposed to those playing in ‘demo’ mode where gambling is the primary function of the website. Interestingly, four or five times more children reporting money free gambling on social networking sites compared to ‘demo’ or ‘free play’ modes on gambling websites. The nature and impact of various forms of money free gambling should be the subject of further research and empirical investigation.