Screening Teens for Gambling Problems

Gambling problems are gambling-related behaviors that detract from a person’s ability to maintain mental equilibrium and participate functionally in society. Some affected individuals have problems severe enough to qualify them for diagnosis of an official condition called gambling disorder. However, doctors may sometimes miss the presence of dysfunctional gambling-related behaviors in teenagers. In a study published in October 2013 in the Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, a team of Australian researchers examined the usefulness of a screening questionnaire, called the Victorian Gambling Screen, in detecting teenagers’ gambling problems.


Gambling Problem Basics

Gambling is a term used to describe any game or activity that offers some sort of reward in turn for an initial investment of money or a money equivalent. Some of these games and activities rely entirely on luck or chance, while others rely on a combination of luck and skill. Most people who gamble do not experience any lasting personal or social harm from their participation. However, for some individuals, gambling takes on a disproportionate importance and starts to displace one or more vital aspects of a functional daily routine. In some cases, the act of gambling becomes addictive in a way that’s highly similar to the addictive nature of drugs and alcohol. Experts in the field call this type of addiction a behavioral or process addiction. As of 2013, addicted gamblers in the U.S. who meet certain established criteria qualify for a diagnosis of gambling disorder.

Gambling in Teenager

Roughly 60 to 80 percent of all U.S. high schoolers gamble for money in any given year, according to figures compiled by the National Council on Problem Gambling. Like most adults, most teens participate in gambling without experiencing any significant harm. However, approximately 4 to 5 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 meet one or more criteria of having a gambling problem. Another 10 to 14 percent of teens gamble in patterns that indicate increased risks for developing a gambling addiction. Some of the signs of problem gambling in adolescents resemble the signs found in adults, including such things as getting a thrill from the risk associated with betting money, exceeding financial resources while gambling and continuing to gamble despite the financial, personal or social cost involved. However, teens may also exhibit signs not relevant to adults, including things such as declining school performance, school truancy and violation of curfews or other established limits on underage conduct.

Screening for Teen Gambling

For a number of reasons, doctors or other health professionals may miss or overlook the presence of gambling problems in teenagers. In the study, the Australian researchers tested the effectiveness of the Victorian Gambling Screen for detecting problem gambling behaviors in a group of 926 middle school and high school students. This questionnaire, which asks people to detail various aspects of their gambling-related behavior in the previous year, was designed for adults, not teenagers. Examples of the details probed by the Victorian Gambling Screen include frequency of gambling, the strain placed on personal or family resources by gambling, frequency of any attempts to hide gambling behaviors from others, the relative priority given to gambling participation and the strength of the urge to gamble.

The researchers gauged the effectiveness of the Victorian Gambling Screen by comparing its results to the results gained from a highly regarded test called the DSM-IV-Juvenile, which was designed specifically to assess gambling problems in teenagers and preteens. After completing their comparison, they concluded that the results gained from use of the Victorian Gambling Screen in teenagers are essentially equivalent to the results gained from use of DSM-IV-Juvenile in the same population.


The results gained by the study authors are important for two reasons. First, they demonstrate that mental health professionals can successfully use the techniques for detecting symptoms of gambling addiction in adults to detect symptoms of the same condition in adolescents. The study’s results also demonstrate that, despite the significantly different ways in which gambling problems may manifest in adults and teenagers, the underlying difficulties remain the same. This means that gambling disorder and its individual symptoms produce largely the same types of dysfunction and damage in both adult and adolescent populations.