Colleges face gambling addiction among students as sports betting spreads

Three out of four college students have gambled in the past year, whether legally or illegally, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

An estimated 2% to 3% of U.S. adults have a gambling problem. The portion of college students with a problem, however, is potentially twice that number – up to 6%.

As an educational psychologist who follows gambling in America, I foresee the potential for gambling on campus to become an even bigger problem. Sports betting continues to expand, including on college campuses, since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling allowing states to make it legal.

As a faculty fellow at an institute that promotes responsible gaming,
I know that colleges can take steps to curtail problem gambling among
students. It is all the more urgent given that adolescents in general,
including college students, are often uniquely susceptible to gambling problems, both because of their exposure to video games – which often have hallmarks of gambling behavior – and the stress and anxiety of college life, which can lead to using gambling as a coping strategy.

The spread of legal sports betting

As of November 2023, sports betting is legal
in some form in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Further, 26 states allow
sports betting online. Bills have been introduced – and some recently
passed – in more states. These states include Vermont, Missouri and North Carolina. Thanks to technology, sports betting is now accessible beyond casinos. Anyone can access it online and on their smartphone.

More than US$268 billion has been gambled legally
on sports betting between June 2018 and November 2023. Revenue in all
U.S. gaming sectors has increased significantly, with sports betting
growing the fastest, at an estimated 75% annually. It has generated about $3.9 billion in tax revenue to date.

Sports betting is also becoming more accessible on college campuses. A
New York Times investigation found that sports betting companies and
universities have essentially “Caesarized” college life.
That is to say, they’ve made campuses resemble elements of the world
famous casinos by introducing online gambling to students.

These profits have driven increased advertising. Some estimate that total advertising through all media channels could approach $3 billion annually. This includes social media platforms like TikTok, where young adults are more likely to see ads for gambling. A study in the United Kingdom found that 72% of 18- to 24-year-olds have seen gambling ads through social media.

While advertisers reportedly focus on young adults of legal age, research suggests that children under 18 are also being exposed to advertising
related to gambling. The intensity of advertising activity on social
media has raised concerns and brought scrutiny. Earlier this year, for
example, prosecutors in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office
expressed concern that sports betting and other gambling might spread
quickly through college campuses as a result of advertising.

Why college students are at greater risk of gambling addiction

Gambling addiction affects people from all backgrounds and across all
ages, but it is an even bigger threat to college students. Adolescents
of college age are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive or risky
behaviors because of a variety of developmental factors, leaving them more susceptible to take bigger risks and experience adverse consequences.

It’s no secret that drinking alcohol is prevalent on college campuses, and this can increase the likelihood of other risk-taking behaviors such as gambling. Like other addictive behaviors, gambling can stimulate the reward centers of the brain, which makes it more difficult to stop even if someone is building up losses.

What colleges and universities can do to help

If you’re worried a student in your life might have a gambling problem, the Mayo Clinic describes signs to look for.
These include restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop or
reduce gambling, gambling more when feeling distressed, and lying to
hide gambling or financial losses from it. Gamblers Anonymous provides a
20-question, self-diagnostic questionnaire to help people identify problems or compulsive gambling.

For more resources, organizations like the Gateway Foundation
offer information and support to help someone with a gambling problem.
Immediate help is available at the national problem gambling helpline, 1-800-GAMBLER. The National Council on Problem Gaming has lists of resources within each state that can provide more local support and assistance.

At the Miami University Institute for Responsible Gaming, Lottery and
Sport, my colleagues and I are working to ensure that the recent
dramatic expansion of legalized gaming is matched by effective guidance
for policymakers and leaders within higher education. Many institutions,
like the University of Oregon,
have begun to acknowledge that widespread legalized sports betting and
gambling can affect their students. A comprehensive and coordinated
approach is required to protect them from harm.

There are resources available to help institutions, such as the “get set before you bet” initiative adopted by the University of Colorado, Boulder
and others. This gives students practical tips to follow if they are
going to gamble, such as setting time and money limits before they
start.

Colleges and universities could do even more. According to the International Center for Responsible Gaming, institutions can address gambling risks to students by:

• Ensuring there are clear policies on gambling and making sure they align with alcohol policies. United Educators provides examples of how institutions can create effective policies and support student wellness, like Arizona State’s policy.
Theirs prohibits legal and illegal gambling at any event related to ASU
and reinforces that alcohol possession, consumption or inebriation is
illegal for all students under 21.

• Promoting awareness of addiction as a mental health disorder and making resources for getting help available to students.

• Ensuring those who work in campus counseling and health services
are familiar with gambling addiction and prepared to support students
struggling with addiction or problem behavior. Providers should also be
aware that multiple addictions can be present, enhancing the challenges
to management and recovery.

• Surveying student attitudes toward gambling to track changes in attitudes, behaviors and norms.

With various sports championships, including in baseball, football
and college basketball, taking place throughout the academic year,
there’s no shortage of occasions for universities to check in with
students about sports betting on campus. Gambling addiction is
treatable, but preventing it from the start is the best solution.