Australia has been urged to adopt tighter curbs on online gambling after a study found social media promotions and casino-style games have been encouraging younger people to take up the habit.
The study, based on surveys of 2,100 people and interviews with both gaming operators and gamblers, found 28 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 who played casino- style games moved to spending more time and money on real gambling. A third of adolescent game players, and 15 per cent of adults, believed playing would increase their chances when gambling.
The study said: "The Internet has changed the way that gambling is provided, and social media offers a highly accessible platform to promote products... Games can be problematic in their own right and regulators and game operators should consider further actions to protect vulnerable consumers."
The study, commissioned by the government-funded Gambling Research Australia, follows a global boom in online gambling, including a growing use of smartphones.
It found gambling operators were increasingly using social media, particularly Facebook and YouTube, to market their products but the area is subject to little or no regulation in Australia. About 11 per cent of young people were found to gamble more after viewing such promotions on social media.
"For the vast majority of people… social media and games have minimal reported impact on their gambling," the study said.
"However, for a minority of people with existing gambling problems, social media-based promotions and social casino games may act as a trigger for gambling and may increase gambling and exacerbate gambling problems."
Social casino games, which allow users to pay for extra playing time and credits, are expected to bring in US$4.4 billion (S$6 billion) in revenue globally this year, with Australia and the United States having the highest spenders per capita. About 54 per cent of users now play on their smartphones - a figure expected to increase.
A gambling expert at Southern Cross University, Dr Sally Gainsbury, who led the study, said online betting has had a dramatic impact as people switched from casinos to betting via laptops and phones.
"Technology and the Internet have had a huge impact," she told The Straits Times. "Some people are getting into serious problems."
Gambling experts in Australia have urged state and federal governments to impose stricter controls on the growth of online promotions and games and to update existing legislation. The main federal law to deal with online gambling was introduced in 2001, before Facebook.
In Australia, online sports betting is legal but casino-style sites are not. However, gamblers can readily access offshore-based sites.
Dr Gainsbury said it would be "difficult to regulate", particularly as many operators were based offshore. But she added: "There certainly needs to be more effort on a counter message being promoted.
"It is important to help adolescents realise that if they do well at games, it does not mean they will do well at gambling."
An expert on gambling policy, Professor Linda Hancock from Deakin University, said regulators need to do more to limit access to offshore sites. She said the authorities could consider a similar approach to that adopted with pornographic sites, including blocking access and even imposing fines on Internet providers.
"It is time to toughen up the regulation," she told The Straits Times.
State governments in Australia rely heavily on taxes from gambling and have been criticised for granting too many licences for gaming venues and slot machines.
New South Wales noted that it gave A$290,000 (S$399,000) a year to Gambling Research Australia to help develop harm-minimisation strategies.
"The NSW government welcomes this research which provides valuable insight into the growing presence of social media in promoting gambling-related behaviour," Deputy Premier Troy Grant told The Straits Times.