Are Online Gambling Firms Really Targeting Children?

  • Report by the UK Gambling Commission reveals that 25,000 11 to 16-year olds are classified as venerable gamblers.
  • Young gamers are targeted social media and console games by loot boxes and in-app purchases.
  • There are calls for apps to become regulated, with action from the UKGC to be expected soon.

In recent times, the UK regulator has become increasingly preoccupied with the concept of problem gambling. There is excellent reason for this too, with a recent report published by the UK Gambling Commission revealing that around 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 are classified as vulnerable gamblers who are being targeted through video games.

In fact, young gamers are encountering various forms of gambling through social media and console games, including loot boxes and skin betting. The former are virtual boxes that contain random contents and can be purchased through video games for real money, and they have recently been cited for censorship by Belgium’s Gambling Committee and the European Gaming Commission.

The UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) has also raised concerns surrounding the similar practice of skin betting, where children use real money to win a host of in-game items including modified guns and knives. The items can be used and traded accordingly, but the opportunistic nature of skin betting and the exchange of money for prizes with an intangible value remains a serious issue for regulators.

Why this issue may go even deeper

Most recently, it was revealed that children have been able to access gambling-style apps through Facebook without any appropriate age checks or verification. More specifically, the company behind the rise of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) is delivering this apps to a large and unrestricted audience through social media, making children vulnerable to the risk of gambling addiction. This follows a stark warning from the industry watchdog, which claims that up to 60,000 children were either addicted to some form of gambling or immersed in games that expose them to such practices.

This latest development certainly represents an evolution of the problem as it includes the publication of social games that involve direct gambling activity. The brainchild of FOBT and casino game development firm Scientific Games, these social games are shared as universally accessible apps through Facebook, while many feature childlike themes involving popular fairytales and iconic characters such as the Flintstones. This seems to reaffirm the notion that the apps have been designed to target children directly, forcing regulators to petition Facebook and ask them why these games have not been removed.

Why regulators must take action now

At the heart of this issue is the Jackpot Party Casino Slots app, which has been developed by Scientific Games and is accessible through Facebook. While the product is not technically defined as a gambling product as money is not won or lost directly on games of chance, it does invite players to buy coins and deploy these on titles that have been heavily influenced by casino gameplay.

There’s also a small print disclaimer stating that the game is aimed at people aged over 21, but there is no age verification required, while coins can be bought indiscriminately in a matter of seconds online.

Users are also targeted via email, with regular publications highlighting real-time promotions and new chances to win.

While features such as loot boxes and skin betting remain part of a grey area that has yet to be categorised as gambling by the UKGC, the publication of tools like the Jackpot Party Casino Slots app is an entirely different state of affairs.

After all, there is no doubt that apps of this type have been designed to actively engage younger users, while the use of strong casino themes and pronounced lack of age verification should serve as red flags to regulators. There is therefore ground for these apps to be regulated and potentially outlawed immediately, and the UKGC is likely to take action soon.

The last word

There’s no doubt that regulators need to take action sooner rather than later, particularly with some many young and underage children at potential risk.

Regulating social games and apps should certainly be a key focus for the UKGC, while it also important that suspect video gaming features like loot boxes are investigated, classified and dealt with in order to provide clarity to developers.

That way, vulnerable gamblers can be protected by the UK regulator can uphold its pledge to safeguard citizens in the short and longer-term.