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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006, 22:48 GMT
Online poker's grip on US youth
By Mark Alden
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Internet gambling has become the pastime of choice for many young Americans, but there is often a high price to pay for what can be a very dangerous game.

Dollars next to a keyboard
Online gambling can lead people into debt and addiction

Ryan is a 23-year-old recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's Ivy League universities.

He is also a compulsive gambler who ran up $20,000 (around 11,500) debt from internet gambling while at college.

"I used to play cards with friends in my social sphere," Ryan says.

"It was a social activity that was accepted by our parents. They thought 'They're under the same roof, we can keep an eye on them'."

Gambling has always been part of the social scene for young Americans.

But with the explosion in popularity of poker - live and on the internet - more young people are now getting into serious trouble.

Poker nights

Unlike with drugs or alcohol, most young people have no idea that they are at risk of becoming addicted to gambling.

A couple of students play
Ryan's parents were happy for his friends to join him for Poker games
They see it as a fun and glamorous activity.

Parents are often unaware of the dangers gambling can pose to their children.

In fact, many parents regard gambling as a harmless pastime and actually encourage their children to while away their leisure time playing cards.

Ryan's mother and father readily admit that they opened their doors to Ryan's school friends for poker nights, delighted that their son was socialising in the apparent safety of their own home.

It was a false sense of security, knowing where all your kids are
Ryan's father
"It was good to know they were here," says Ryan's mother. "We could see what they were doing. They were a couple of steps away. They were right in the dining room, I was in the kitchen and they were having a good time."

Ryan's father was also happy about his son's poker playing.

"It was a false sense of security, knowing where all your kids are," he says.

"They would come around the dining room table - six, eight, 10 kids on a Friday or Saturday night.

"They were in clear sight. They were not drinking or smoking dope."

Call for help

But Ryan's parents soon discovered these poker nights were not the harmless fun they imagined.

Ryan's father recalls the night his son confessed to his addiction.

"I was working midnights that night," he says, "and he called me on my cell-phone at two or three in the morning.

This is something that's going to affect him for the rest of his life
Ryan's mother

"He was in tears, like: 'I gotta talk to you dad'. He was crying and I woke up completely mentally then from thinking it was just a normal phone call. He shocked me in a way.

"He said 'I'm having a problem. I'm very deeply in debt and I owe money'. I thought he said $1,800 but he said 'no dad, it's $18,000 dollars'."

Ryan's mother remembers the shock and disbelief at discovering how destructive her son's gambling had become.

"I didn't believe it. I said to him 'Ryan you're not gambling are you?' and he started to break down and said 'yes'.

"I couldn't believe it. I didn't have a clue. I was totally shocked and very disappointed. This is money that he's going to pay back. But still, this is something that's going to affect him for the rest of his life."

Secret life

Gambling is very much a hidden addiction.

Ryan sought help with the charity Gambler's Anonymous
Unlike drinking or taking drugs, there are very few warning signs that parents can pick up on.

Ryan's mother and father saw nothing abnormal in their son's behaviour, which is why they did not even think about the possible dangers of gambling.

"I didn't realise it was a disease because you don't really see it," says Ryan's mother.

"I mean, you look at him and you can't tell he's a gambler. He looks fine, he's a handsome guy, polite. It's something the gambler hides."

"You cannot tell a gambler. It could be anybody," says Ryan's father. "It could be your wife, your daughter, it could be your grandmother. It could be anybody."

Ryan's parents decided to seek help immediately and they enrolled their son in a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous.

Today, Ryan has been "clean" of gambling for almost two years. But his dad realises that gambling will remain a threat to his son for the rest of his life.

"It's a bug that can bite you at any time. From now until the time he gets buried - I hate to say that - it's always there," he says.


Most schools and colleges already have programmes designed to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases.

Young students playing online poker
But they have nothing about gambling. This is something that has to change, says Ryan's parents.

"In high school they could have programmes," says his mother.

"They could have gambling on the curriculum along with health, sex education and that kind of stuff. I think it would be appropriate."

"There has to be education in colleges," adds Ryan's father, "because the biggest thing when a kid turns 21 is 'let's go and gamble'.

"It has to be more on the college level - make it a two hour course every semester that kids have to go to just to refresh them about what the penalties are in the future in life."

It is a message that Ryan would certainly endorse.

"When I was in high school, I had people come and speak about what alcohol could do, but there was never anybody who came and said: 'This is what gambling can do to you... this is the depths that gambling can bring you to'," he says.

"That might have helped me in terms of educating me about the perils of gambling."

Today more young people are gambling than ever before.

And they are doing so in more or less total ignorance about the perils that befell Ryan and could just as easily affect them. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, those between the ages of 18 and 24 are showing the highest rates of gambling addictions.

The lack of awareness among parents, schools and colleges about gambling's hidden dangers is contributing to youth gambling addiction becoming a real social problem in America.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 16 March, 2006, at 1102 GMT.

This is a co-production with American Radioworks, the documentary unit of American Public Media.

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