Article by Adrian Bailey, Director, The Machine Zone
This is a long post, sorry! Skip the preamble/disclaimer by all means.
This post is a ‘light touch’ consideration of some of the questions arising around the idea of gambling education. The introduction below gives some background and points to some of the major questions.
It’s good to start, though, by stating firmly what this article isn’t. It doesn’t and couldn’t offer criticism of the many gambling education initiatives currently running. It doesn’t claim to be other than very tentative. It claims no expertise.
It does try to highlight questions underlying all approaches to gambling education. This highlighting is drawn from existing practitioners and theorists for whom such questions have always been basic.
I taught in secondary schools and then further education back in the 70s and 80s. During this time I was also engaged in educational research. I’ve never been a gambler but I have had a serious addiction and severe and enduring mental health problem. After teaching I worked in the mental health field, and in the last seven years of paid employment I worked with people recovering from various compulsive behaviours. Only in the past three years have I become familiar with the area of gambling.
Through work and personal experience I have ‘researched’ (as an ‘educated layperson’) mental health, and ‘addiction’. Like many of you I don’t like that word, ‘addiction’ but for convenience will use it here. Regard it as no more than a signpost to what we may prefer to call by less stigmatised words, and even these are only signposts to the area of personal experiences.
These experiences are painful to individuals and their immediate networks. They relate to great social costs – economic costs, of course, but also serious negative repercussions upon the health and wellbeing of society. As such, they are public health issues in the widest sense. Because of this they are political issues too. Governments allocate funding for treatment, research and more; governments also, by attending – or not attending – to the issues raised suggest the priority – or lack of priority – of the issues raised and the allocation of resources.
Since it is a political issue, it is of concern to all citizens. In a democracy, a childless citizen has the right to be engaged with education. Someone who is young and healthy will engage with the health and social care policies of government, and provision for aging people. We may be materially well-off but have the right to challenge the existence in our own country of poverty and inequality. Concern for military horrors witnessed across the world gives every citizen the right to ask of the government’s foreign policy questions about arms sales it allows. So, you don’t have to be an ‘addict’, or mentally distressed or otherwise in pain to be involved, any more than you need to be a child in poverty to care about child poverty.
So, while having a specific interest in mental health and what is called addiction, by engagement with gambling education is as a concerned citizen. I can’t see any way of framing this as other than political.
Like most important issues, complexity encourages a wide variety of approaches and attitudes. As an interested citizen layperson I follow expert understandings of due humility.
As the philosopher William Irwin has written:
We ought to regularly and open-mindedly reconsider (alternative opinions and approaches) if only to remind ourselves why we believe what we believe.
Gambling and gaming have been around since history began. Today we see a very wide spectrum. Truly, many millions do enjoy a ‘harmless flutter’ on a lottery or bet. Some buy scratch cards at £2 or £10 a time. It’s fun! Even without money we enjoy games of chance, the throw of a dice. Kids like me bet by throwing coins against a wall, then got into cards along with the cigarettes behind the bike shed. I’m sure kids still do. It’s something we learned in school but not from teachers. From our mates and the culture of kids passed on from one generation to the next.
If you’re on unemployment benefit or a low income, ten pounds can take a chunk out of basic living costs. Power, rent, food, council tax, presents for the kids. Even what looks like a small amount can have serious consequences. When people become hooked on gambling, often people in well-paid jobs or with good incomes, they can lose many thousands, even millions of pounds. Some – tragically – are driven to suicide. Others steal from their employers and end up in jail.
In the last ten years we’ve all become aware of the damage gambling can do. In response, a 2019 survey of the general public done by the Gambling Commission found that 27% of people think it would be best if ALL gambling were banned, while 82% agree that there are too many gambling opportunities today. The media regularly report on the often tragic impact of gambling on some individuals. For instance, in July 2020 The Guardian headlined a story: ‘How the Gambling Industry Got its Claws into Kids’. Former gamblers have initiated many organisations which document individuals’ stories; these are pressure groups, campaigners aiming to bring about fundamental changes in regulation, advertising and marketing, and the ‘addictive’ nature of some gambling products. Their work is mirrored in that of many academic researchers. Politicians from all parties have been and remain intent upon bringing about reform.
The industry, whose biggest members are represented by the Gaming and Betting Council, and its supporters point out that millions of people enjoy having ‘a harmless flutter’. It distinguishes between what it claims is a ‘small number’ of ‘problem gamblers’ from the vast majority of ‘responsible gamblers’. The industry also directly funds harm-prevention organisations such as Gamble Aware and thereby directs some of its 1% voluntary levy towards education and treatment. Several campaigns which we’ll discuss elsewhere are demanding a compulsory 1% levy with all monies ringfenced by government to fund completely independent research, education and treatment. Against this, campaigners have claimed that concentrating upon education and treatment, while important areas (in particular, treatment which is greatly under-resourced or provided), can lead to neglect or disguising of vital systemic issues such as product design, marketing and advertising, regulatory issues and conscious exploitation of vulnerable psychological attributes of the human being. Such a claim is also made at various levels by academic researchers. Rather than develop this tension here, I’ve appended some web addresses at the end to give you an idea of such research.
Education about health, finance, citizenship, alcohol and other drugs, mental health and all the other things that relate to our wellbeing is not only confined to schools and other formal education settings. Nor is it limited to youth. Public Health campaigns mount many informal educational projects. The mental health sector provides very many sources of guidance, information and learning. And, of course, kids learn from their parents, their peer group and the culture they live in – probably in some important ways far more than they learn in school. We also learn from social media. We learn from the mass media: in particular, popular music is a potent source of learning; so is television. Taking the latter, a ‘soap opera’ with a storyline about gambling or other mental health problems can provide more powerful learning than in formal settings. We also learn from advertisements and marketing. We learn, for instance, that Product X is fun, or will make us happy. Not all learning benefits us. Some addiction experts believe that an addiction is learned behaviour (as opposed to some sort of disease).
But here we’ll focus on school education, and in particular education about gambling. This is normally provided by what’s known in England and Wales as Personal, Social, Health and Economic education. This is a developing area. There is a very active PSHE association which, as well as providing resources and curriculum discussion, lobbies for greater weight and training to be given to the area. They have some excellent guidance for teaching about gambling, The extract below demonstrates just one aspect of the theory and practice of gambling education and its complexity if it’s to be considered thoroughly. The extract also demonstrates some aspects of gambling education lacking in certain other current approaches:
Understanding of gambling industry strategies to draw people in and keep them gambling, including those that exploit natural human biases and errors
Dark nudges — a term used by researcher Philip Newall— describe the techniques gambling organisationsuse to encourage participation in gambling. Researchers suggest the gambling industry utilises arange of techniques including:
Normalisation of gambling behaviours, particularly bycreating a perception that it is a key part of enjoyingsport entertainment
Legitimisation through partnering with trusted organisations(to convey the impression that gamblingis accepted by those known to be ethical)
Extensive advertising with particular focus on vulnerablegroups
‘Free bet’ promotions and ‘welcome back’ bonuses
Encroachment into gaming including throughnon-monetary forms, e.g. ‘loot boxes’
Over-emphasising a distinction between problem and responsible gambling — encouraging people to think of themselves as responsible gamblers
Adverts and encouragement to bet on highly specificevents where participants are less likely to win (e.g.first goal scorer or specific scoreline)
Additional techniques are used in online gambling:
Use of ‘near miss’ outcomes exploit the human bias to try again if someone has a near miss
Losses disguised as partial wins (with audio and visual prompts to support this)
Meaningless ‘bells, whistles and associations’ makeuse of the human tendency to search for meaning in patterns
It is plausible that helping young people to become aware of these techniques can help them to be moreresilient to them.
Understanding of gambling risks and harms
Most gambling education programmes aimed at adolescents include a component on gambling’s risks and harms. This would seem an inherent part of enabling young people’s informed decision-making. Two caveats however merit highlighting: first, the recent review of school-based gambling education programmes concluded that ‘promoting a negative viewpoint of gambling and its associated consequences are not sufficient to prevent gambling problems’— therefore this should only be a component rather than the entirety of gambling education.
Second, some young people may find risks enticing rather than aversive, linked to developmental differences in perceptions and responses to risk42, so how risks are presented and discussed is important.
from How to address gambling through PSHE education
It’s important to note that the PSHE work with Gamble Aware (funded by the industry). Some have felt that any funding from industry is not permissible but the PSHE – and Gamble Aware itself – have shown repeatedly that this is not necessarily the case.
In the extract above, young people are introduced to the role of industry in gambling harms. It’s noticeable too that the sort of education mooted here is not restricted to standalone sessions. As per government advice on all PSHE it can be integrated into the whole school curriculum. English/media education (analysing advertisements), mathematics (odds and risks) for instance. The PSHE experts are fully aware of age and development needs. One also has to consider learning disabled pupils. There is an emphasis (as there should be in all teaching) on teacher delivery. Research has shown what doesn’t work and may have effects opposite to what is intended. This includes being very careful about inviting former gamblers to speak: a totally unintentional outcome may be to make gambling risks attractive. The idea that most people can gamble without problems and only a few run into trouble is dangerous too. Scaring young people is very dangerous: many young people have ‘heard it all before’ about the terrible harms of alcohol, cannabis junk food: such scare stories conflict with their deeper learning from ‘real life’. Gambling education should not be parachuted in to occupy a few sessions like a magic pill or injection: it should be part of a carefully integrated whole school developmental curriculum. Lessons should be participatory and interactive: few teachers these days (hopefully) talk at their students or expect them to magically absorb wisdom from texts.
The purpose of the foregoing has been to suggest that providing education about gambling is complex and requires expertise. One may also hope that educationists are the key providers of curriculum design, delivery and evaluation – which is far from the case presently. Education cannot be some simple panacea that can be ‘injected’ into a young person’s mind. In a school it also requires commitment from senior management to PSHE generally to design a developmental curriculum. It seems unlikely at present that delivery is optimal in all schools. Elsewhere, after training about gambling education (often a one day or less session) teachers have felt unprepared – or faced with an only choice of delivering a handful of discrete sessions to students.
Implementing gambling education requires theory partly based on what has been learned about teaching about other risky behaviours. Such research has looked at other countries. In the UK, the Alcohol Education Trust which works with the PSHE Association, founded in 2010, provides a promising future for what gambling education may achieve. The AET has had the time needed to evaluate programmes – and give statistically significant indicators of positive impact on students’ drinking behaviours. The gambling education field is new. It is, therefore, difficult for evaluation of particular programmes (the AET does compare its own work with others’). Nevertheless, by virtue of existing at all, the importance of very enthusiastic and well-managed projects contributes to establishing gambling education ‘on the agenda’. Good work is being done in this area by a few initiatives as well as the PSHE itself as ‘insiders’ with the power to link to other organisations and provide specific expertise. In Scotland, FastForward with its emphasis on peer group participatory workshops, theatre and a harm minimisation approach has a gambling hub to complement its work in health, risk and wellbeing. Many other projects continue to occur regionally, initiated by a range of organisations. However, such work is spread thinly, delivery is often flawed and there have been no informed research projects to evaluate programmes. They may, after all, be at best an expensive waste of time, and at worst counter-productive.
There are many obstacles to overcome and many contradictory approaches that need evaluating but education about gambling is growing and driven by enthusiasm and a wide, varied skills base.
There’s always a ‘but’! Here are some questions I think are important though I make no attempt to answer them.
- Within the context of all factors contributing to gambling harms is ‘gambling education’ emphasised too much and thus working to divert attention from other important factors?
- Given the current state of gambling education which offers promise but has many basic difficulties associated with it (as suggested above) is it likely to be a significant player in reducing gambling harm?
- How, when and by whom will gambling education programmes be evaluated and compared?
- How, when and by whom will gambling education within school curricula be evaluated?
- Which approaches to risky behaviours that have been evaluated in PSHE could potentially inform gambling education? What, if any, evidence is there that education about drugs, alcohol and tobacco has been effective?
- Should gambling education be positioned and weighted within an integrated national policy for reducing harms?
- Given that a fifth of school leavers are ‘functionally illiterate’ is there scope for informal youth education to reach young people? (Functional illiteracy refers to minimal literacy, insufficient for full functioning in life such as ability to comprehend more than very basic texts).
- Given that 49% of the working age population have numeracy levels less that those expected of a primary school child (National Numeracy) is it realistic to assume that all pupils will be able to engage with such things as odds, percentages etc. in delivery of gambling education?
- Gambling problems can affect anybody but since there will be a demographic sector correlating with (7) and (8), hence less reachable by education and less capable of understanding fully the architecture of gambling, does such a group represent a vulnerable sector at risk of exploitation?
- Could it be that calls for ‘education’ are based upon a naive and simplistic understanding of both education and the prevention of gambling harms? Or is there scope to examine any potentials for education about gambling? If current provision may be wasteful of time and money, may be ineffective or counter-productive, where are the spaces to highlight this and who will do so?
Gambling Commission (3 year strategy for reducing harms)