Promoting Sports Gambling: Canada’s Other Pandemic

Experts Suggest Possible Solutions for Young Canadians

Albano Anis

Gambling ads are everywhere in Canada:YouTube sponsorships, TV commercials, and even social media promotions. Anybody, including young people, can see them.

In 2021 the federal government passed Bill C-218 which put the responsibility of regulating gambling operations in the hands of individual provinces and territories. More importantly, this allowed provinces and territories to legalize single-game betting. Canadians previously had to bet on the outcomes of at least three sporting events at a time to place a bet legally . As of August 2021, there are no more restrictions and Canadians are free to bet however they like.

This led to ever-growing advertising campaigns from casinos and online betting sites. A story by CTV from last year reported that a Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022 episode of Hockey Night in Canada contained “no less than 19 sports betting commercials.” According to an Ipsos study conducted in November 2022, Forty-eight per cent of Canadians “agree that the amount and volume of advertising is excessive and needs to be cut back.” Sixty-three  per cent of Canadians went so far as to suggest legal limits on advertising gambling. 

Some of these commercials feature high-profile athletes, such as Wayne Gretzky, promoting sportsbooks, which are establishments that accept bets from users on various sporting events. Each individual province and territory sets out guidelines that sportsbooks must follow to be deemed legal. Commercials promoting these entities can be particularly dangerous for adolescents and young adults.

“We know that young people, especially males, emulate and identify with some of their sports heroes,” said  Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours at McGill University. “So if they’re promoting gambling, then this is a potential problem.” He added that young people are also more likely to take risks, and that they have a higher chance of being enticed by a gambling commercial compared to older age groups.

Dr. Luke Clark is the director of the Centre for Gambling Research and a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He explained why it's more dangerous for young people to start gambling than mature adults.

“Like most forms of addiction, gambling addictions generally have their onset in youth,” he said. Even though Canada has age restrictions on gambling, Clark affirmed that many people still begin gambling at a young age, and that it’s “itself a risk factor for later gambling problems.”

Every sportsbook commercial contains some variation of text warning users to play responsibly at the bottom of the screen, but Derevensky explains that it’s often in very small letters and he believes that most people don’t pay attention to it.

“Advertising companies that are designed to promote gambling have to throw that in. So in reality, they’re really trying to promote gambling,” he added.

According to Derevensky, the problem is that when a teenager or young adult sees a sportsbook commercial, they are seeing it as an exciting activity without fully considering the negative consequences it could have on their well-being.

Dr. Clark simplified the idea by comparing the intricacy of the human brain to the complexity of a car.

“The reward system [of the brain] is kind of mature relatively early on in development,” he explained. He added that the system that releases dopamine into the brain acts as the accelerator of the car. This reward system is fully mature in teenagers and young adults, but the frontal lobes of the brain that we “generally think of as the kind of brake and the monitor” don’t finish their development until the mid 20s.

One of the biggest concerns that Clark has about the quantity of gambling promotions is the normalization of betting on sports. He explained that “sport and betting on sport might be becoming very closely linked,” particularly for young people.

There is good news, however. A lot of young people in Canada believe that these commercials are not likeable according to the Ipsos study. Forty-nine per cent of Canadians said that the ads aren't enjoyable to watch.  Fifty-four per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds agreed that they are not enjoyable, which was “the highest among all other age groups.”

Derevensky and Clark both believe that there are numerous remedies that can help protect young people from getting too involved in gambling. One such remedy is providing better education to young students on the risks of gambling, the same way that schools teach students about drugs or alcohol use.

“Gambling is also a behaviour that can become addictive in much the same way as drugs,” said Clark. “I think the risk is there and that would be an important part of my ideal curriculum.”

However, they both acknowledge that educating parents on the risks of youth gambling could be arguably more important.

Their current research shows that parents generally don’t realize the gravity of the problems that gambling could pose for young people.

“Adults all know about a problem gambler,” said Derevensky. “And if you ask them to describe that person…nowhere do you hear the word teenager in there, because they don’t think they have enough money in order to get into trouble.”

“The prevalent data on teenage gambling, I think, surprises a lot of people,” Clark said. “We just think that because this is an age-restricted behaviour that youth are not doing it, but the data doesn't support that.”

Online sportsbooks have put in place some features to protect their players from themselves. Players have the option of timing out their account for a short amount of time, usually only a few days.

They also have the option of a longer self-exclusion which could shut down their account for several months or years if they wish.They can set limits on the amount of money they are allowed to deposit into their accounts in a given week, month, or year as well.

The problem is that these features require the players to take it upon themselves to use them.

“All of those features do require that control and that insight to actually engage with them,” Clark explained, “and some of the academic research shows that not a lot of gamblers voluntarily engage with those tools.”

Researchers believe that there’s a lot more that casinos and betting sites can do to protect their players so that they do not bear the entire burden of controlling their own gambling.

“I think one is to increase the age for entry,” said Derevensky. He says that if provinces were to raise the legal gambling age to 21, then there would be fewer teenagers who begin gambling. “What we’re really trying to do is prevent the early onset of gambling amongst adolescents.”

There are several organizations in Canada with that same objective. One such organization is the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), based in Toronto.  A core initiative of theirs is to create programs for young adults between the ages of 18 to 24 that educate them on the myths and risks associated with gambling. The RGC also gives tips to young adults about how to gamble responsibly if they choose to.

“The programs that we design and create every couple of years are meant to start a dialogue with that age group,” said Lisa Couperus, associate director of Special Projects and Programs at the RGC.

The project that the RGC currently uses for young adults is a video game called Check Your Reflex. They attend different university campuses across Canada letting students play their game. There is also an online version of the game that anybody can play.

The interesting part is that the game does not appear to have anything to do with gambling. While students think that they are playing a reflex-based video game, the game is designed in parallel to the experience of gambling.

The Check Your Reflex homepage states that when somebody gambles, their body can experience “a heightened state of excitement that may affect [their] decision-making process.” The RGC’s goal was to bring out that same level of excitement when people play the video game to help them understand how gambling can change the way they think.

“When we talk about the gambling element, it makes sense to them. They’re interested in talking about it,” Couperus said. “Hopefully, they’ll go on home, play it online as well, and reinforce our messaging around those myths and risks.”