Thanks in large part to the proliferation of internet sites devoted to the topic, experts say millions of American teens are taking up an ever-more-accessible national pastime: gambling.

Much of the action is small-time underage buying of lottery tickets, or playing cards or dice games for spare change. But experts say the long-term stakes are high, because gamblers who start young are the most likely to become addicted.

“This is the first generation of kids growing up when gambling is legal and available virtually nationwide,” said George Meldrum of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems. “Casinos, racetracks—they take it for granted.”

Nationwide statistics on youth gambling are scarce, but regional surveys suggest more than 30 percent of all high-school students gamble occasionally.

Middle-schoolers are now joining them, too, as evidenced by a sports-betting ring uncovered at a Glenview, Ill., middle school in 2002.

In Delaware, Meldrum’s agency recently conducted one of the largest-ever surveys of student gambling: Nearly one-third of 6,753 participating eighth-graders said they had gambled in 2002.

Those who gambled were much more likely than other students to smoke, drink alcohol, use illegal drugs, and commit petty crimes, the survey found.

Such trends are the focus of research at the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems, based at McGill University in Montreal.

The center’s co-director, Jeffrey Dervensky, said studies indicate compulsive gambling afflicts up to 8 percent of young gamblers, compared with up to 3 percent of adult gamblers.

Adult addicts might seek help when they realize their job or marriage is imperiled, but young people are less likely to do so, Dervensky said.

“These kids still live at home, and nobody’s dragging them in, saying, If you don’t go for help, I’m leaving you,'” Dervensky said. “These kids steal money, usually from their family. If you get caught, your parents are not going to turn you in.”

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said more than 80 percent of American adults gamble at least occasionally, a possible reason for what he sees as a worrisome tolerance of youth gambling.

“We’ve had a number of parents say, Thank God, it’s just gambling,'” Whyte said.

Sometimes, a parent’s passion for gambling is passed on to an adolescent. That happened to Sarah, now a 31-year-old New York executive who accompanied her parents to Atlantic City, N.J., casinos as a teenager, became hooked, and now attends Gamblers Anonymous sessions to shake an addiction that plunged her into a six-figure debt.

“From the first time I actually sat down at a blackjack table and played, when I was 18 or 19, it was pretty obvious I wasn’t normal,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to get up even to go to the bathroom. I was a little crazy. It was all I wanted to do.”

Sarah said gambling will spread among young people because of the availability of betting options and credit cards.

Ed Looney of the New Jersey Council on Problem Gambling said betting on sports is epidemic at colleges. He estimated 40 percent of New Jersey adolescents play the lottery, which is off-limits to anyone under 18.

Others complain enforcement in many states is lax and not enough public money is spent to help young gambling addicts.

The Delaware survey found that 9 percent of eighth-graders had gambled on internet sites offering electronic forms of slot machines and card games. Such sites are difficult to regulate, experts say.

Many experts believe this type of gambling will become increasingly tempting to young people.

“The internet provides the holy trinity of risk factors: immediate access, anonymity, and—with use of a credit card—the ability to gamble with money you don’t really have,” Whyte said.

McGill’s Dervensky is worried by internet gambling sites that incorporate video-game technology.

“They give you an illusion of control, a sense that the more you play, the better you get,” he said. “It’s training a whole new generation of kids. Once they get their credit cards, they’re off and running.”

Links:

International Center for Youth Gambling Problems
http://www.education.mcgill.ca/gambling

National Council on Problem Gambling
http://www.ncpgambling.org