Young children play online while playing computer games that are often unfamiliar to their parents, a gambling expert has warned.
The practice known as “skin betting” involves children playing when buying virtual items such as weapons or soccer players. The gamble is that the buyer only knows what he has bought after the transaction.
A number of computer games also allow players to play with their skins to win more valuable ones.
“There is currently a blurred line between gambling and gambling in Ireland,” said Tony O’Reilly, gambling addiction advisor for Extern Problem Gambling.
“Skin bets are when you are in a computer game and you buy an item, let’s say a football player. But you could have a great player like Lionel Messi who is worth a lot in the game or a bad player who is worth nothing.
“It stimulates the same brain patterns as traditional gambling. The argument is that these types of games lead to real additions to gambling in children.
“Some computer games actually have casinos and players can wager with real money. Parents bought the games and their credit cards are often linked to an online account.
“A parent called us recently because their son had spent a lot of money on his credit card game while he was playing. People can run into tens of thousands of euros in debt.
“It’s a problem in Ireland that has not yet been discussed.”
Mr. O’Reilly is a former gambling addict. The Carlow postman was sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 for stealing 1.75 million euros from his employer An Post. He used the money to fuel addiction.
Today he is a trained consultant and specializes in gambling. He lectures in schools on the dangers of addiction and how to seek help.
“I’m giving a virtual lecture at a school for transition year students and their parents next week,” he said.
“The lockdown has led to an increase in gaming and gambling. I would advise parents to be very careful with their in-app purchases for their children.
“The lectures I give in schools used to be all about gambling. Now it’s also about gambling addiction, and it’s very worrying that children can now play these computer games.
“Gambling addiction in this country is a ticking time bomb.”
Mr O’Reilly, who wrote a book with Declan Lynch about his ancestry at gambling, said he was not anti-gambling or anti-gaming.
“For the vast majority of children who play these games, this won’t be a problem for them. For a small percentage, however, it will become addictive,” he said.
“Some children with gambling problems are only 11 years old.
“Sometimes your parents aren’t as familiar with computers as they are and don’t know they’re playing with their credit cards until they’re billed.”
The government has announced that it will be operating a regulatory authority for gambling by the fall. The position should be advertised this summer.
It is part of tough new laws to regulate the online sector through the Department of Justice’s Secretary of State James Browne, who also envisages legislation to combat online gambling for children.
The regulator will also run a social fund to treat people with gambling addiction. “These new laws have been in the pipeline for years and can’t come soon enough,” added O’Reilly.
“The gambling regulator will be very important, and funding treatment for people with gambling addiction is very important.
“We are way behind the UK, which has many treatment options for gambling addiction, including children. Compared to alcohol and drug addiction, gambling addiction can be easily hidden. In my case it was.”
The UK Gambling Commission highlighted concerns about “skin” betting in a recent report, saying, “We are seeing examples of really young people, 11 and 12 year olds, engaging in skin betting without realizing it is playing.”