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Getting played: gaming as a gambling gateway during school holidays

With Australian children and adolescents conducting much of their schooling, socialising and gaming online through lockdown and now into the school holidays, supervising parents are being given a view into their children’s often-secret digital lives.

Scratch the surface and parents can see that it’s not all fun and games, with some children and adolescents being unknowingly exposed to gambling through gaming.

A literature review, ‘Online gaming and gambling in children and adolescents – Normalising gambling in cyber places’, released by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation in 2018 examined the available research on children and adolescents' engagement with online gaming and gambling activities.

What the review highlights is the digital divide between children and parents. Children born in this millennium know their way around websites as second nature. And while gaming technology jumps ahead, the understanding of many parents trails far behind.

That ignorance can present significant risks to young people left unsupervised online.

Most Australian children and adolescents have their own electronic device and 2017 data show that 81 per cent of Australians aged 8–17 years have played an online game. Right in their hand and often behind bedroom doors, gambling and gambling-like products are accessible and promoted to young audiences across their favourite digital media channels.

Children who previously had strict limits on screen use may have found rules relaxed during lockdown and into the school holidays, as many parents continue to juggle working-from-home requirements.

But gaming isn’t always innocent digital entertainment. Even when money doesn’t change hands, many games simulate gambling. Take ‘loot boxes’, an in-game reward system that can be bought with real-world money. Inside the boxes are random groupings of virtual cosmetic items known as ‘skins’ that help the gamer customise their character in ‘cool’ ways. Or not. They may contain nothing of value, getting children used to the thrill/frustration cycle of chance in gambling.

While the review cites 2017 data showing that 34 per cent of Australian young people made in-game purchases in the past 12-months, those numbers are only increasing. And a 2018 review of 22 popular video games found that six met the criteria for gambling where players could cash out winnings for real money.

But the review also shows that informed parents who do their homework can protect their children by locking down financial access online, drawing them into real-world activities and having critical conversations about gaming and the tricks of marketing.

Many young people who pride themselves on being media savvy are shocked to discover that, when it comes to advertising, they are the ones being played.

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