New Study Examines The Causes And Correlates Of Gambling In Children

Why do some children start gambling at a young age while others do not? Theorists have suggested that the answer to this question is some combination of individual traits and environmental factors, both nature and nurture, but it is not yet understood which traits and factors have more of an influence on behavior. To address this question, researchers must examine the same children over a length of time (in what is called a longitudinal study) in order to see what traits in a younger child predict gambling behavior as the child ages. A recent study of Canadian children published in the journalPsychology of Addictive Behaviorstook just this approach (Vitaro & Wanner, 2011). The researchers gathered information about 1,125 children and their families between the ages of six and eight, and then measured their gambling behavior at the age of 10. The findings suggest that preventing gambling in children will require a multifaceted approach that addresses all of the potential risk factors involved.

The researchers measured several variables in the children, including their teacher’s impressions of child sensitivity to reward and punishment, parent gambling behavior and demographic factors. Low sensitivity to punishment, which is controlled in the brain by serotonin levels in what is called the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), is manifested in low inhibition and lack of regard for consequences. High sensitivity to reward, which is controlled in the brain by dopamine levels in what is called the behavioral activation system (BAS), is demonstrated in impulsive behavior. These two systems are biologically distinct from each other and vary from person to person.

The researchers were especially interested in how the BIS and BAS interacted with each other, and with the gambling behavior of the parents, to affect gambling in children. One hypothesis is that the systems affect each other. For example, a child who is very sensitive to rewards might be more likely to gamble, but if that same child were also very sensitive to punishment the aversion to punishment might override the desire for rewards and keep him/her from gambling. Another hypothesis is that the systems do not interact at all, and each exerts a separate impact on the individual child.

The researchers’ findings support the second hypothesis. Both BIS and BAS, as well as parental gambling, independently affected whether or not children gambled at the age of 10. That is, the children who were more likely to gamble at age 10 had teachers who thought they were more sensitive to rewards, less sensitive to punishment, or whose parents gambled. However, whether parents suffered from disordered gambling was not a factor. This may be because young children are not aware of their parent’s gambling problems, or because too few family members had gambling problems to achieve statistical significance in this study. While this study lays the groundwork for discussions of what causes youth gambling, more research is needed to further unravel the relationship between genetics, environment and childhood gambling.

More information on the article is available on the website of the journalPsychology of Addictive Behaviors. Do you have thoughts or questions about gamblingamong young children? Tell us in the Comments section below.


Vitaro, F., & Wanner, B. (2011). Predicting early gambling in children.Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. doi:10.1037/a0021109

NCRG staffResearch Updatebehaviorchildrendisordered gamblinggambling across the lifespangambling research grantsNational Center for Responsible Gamingnew researchresearchstudiesyouth gambling