Why Are There Age Requirements for Gambling (Online and Off)?

Every teenager eventually runs into prohibitions based on age. To a 15-year-old it’s understandable why a 5-year-old shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

But why do you have to wait another year to get a driver’s license?

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And if you have a summer job, why can’t you spend your money on alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling the way 18-year-old or 21-year old friends and relatives do?

Everyone feels “mature enough” to make mature decisions before their elders say they’re ready.

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But is the nearly universal prohibition on underage gambling based on tradition or some scientifically established fact?

Reflecting upon all the factors a gambling establishment, either online or land-based must consider, several reasons come to mind.

Age of Majority

This seems to be the most important factor.

Despite any precocious emotional or intellectual maturity young people may possess, in most jurisdictions, an age of majority prevails.

The age of majority determines when an individual can enter into legally binding contracts. A law-abiding gambling company cannot do business with minors.

Every member of an online casino must register and honestly affirm their age. To collect winnings they must prove their identity and age eligibility.

If a minor successfully enters a land-based casino, plays a game, and collects a modest stake, the casino has broken the law. The young player may get away with it.

But if the young player wins a jackpot requiring any kind of paperwork the casino won’t honor the win.

Not only do they not have to honor the win they legally cannot.

Laws Governing Gambling Activities

Governments around the world decided not to allow minors to gamble in licensed establishments. Gambling laws take the decision out of the casinos’ hands.

Many teens learn how to play blackjack, poker, roulette, and other gambling games at home or from their friends.

They may even play for money in unlicensed gaming situations.

If caught by authorities the teens may not be prosecuted, but game organizers would almost certainly be arrested.

Teens’ parents are also held accountable for the behavior of their children.

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But how often do teenagers take unwarranted risks without thinking about the consequences for themselves or others?

Age restrictions on gambling fall into a complex system of laws designed to protect young individuals from making life-destroying choices.

Emotional and Intellectual Maturity is Vital to Managing Risk

While few fully mature adults (estimates range from 5% to 10%) are considered gambling addicts, many acquired addictive habits while still adolescents.

Science is still uncertain about when people become fully mature adults. In 2014 the National Academy of Sciences proposed that ages 18-26 be considered the final stage of emotional and intellectual development.

The truth is that science has yet to show at what age the general population can make good choices about risky behavior. This goes well beyond gambling and into many types of activities.

Teens are not permitted to compete in many types of professional sports. They may lack the physical characteristics and training to compete, but their mental abilities are not yet ripe.

Social concerns about teens’ readiness to make important choices are reinforced by one disturbing study: a 20-year study found that children experiencing stress do mature faster than their peers.

This is not a justification for allowing some teens to gamble, smoke, drink, or take other risks. It’s clear confirmation that young people are not naturally ready to make adult choices. Gambling is all about risk, and society has deemed it’s too risky for young individuals.

Gambling Requires Financial Responsibility

If you gamble, you’re staking something of value. In both online and offline gambling establishments, money is at stake.

And gamblers are expected to cover their losses.

Unfortunately, this is easy to do with debt. You can borrow $1000 and take it to the casino. All the casino can do is insist you put money on the table before they allow you to pay.

Online casinos can only insist you deposit funds into your account before playing.

An emancipated teenager has the right to earn a supporting income, but most teens are not emancipated. Without the ability to enter into legal contracts, they can’t even borrow money.

Ironically, even though casinos don’t care where you get your money, they need you to bring in new money every time you gamble.

They’re counting on your losses for their profits.

Having a steady income, being able to support yourself, and budgeting a reasonable amount for entertainment makes you a more desirable customer for a casino. A business that depends on financially unstable teenagers accepts greater risks than most casinos do.

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How’s that for irony?

Younger People Are More Susceptible to Addictive Behavior

Although science still has much to learn about how the brain develops and works, recent findings show that adolescents are more prone to addiction than adults.

An individual who grows to adulthood in a supportive, healthy environment is less likely to become an addict.

There are no guarantees in life, but requiring teens to wait before taking some risks helps them later in life.

Gambling addiction is the number 1 reason why some organizations oppose the spread of organized, legal gambling. The cost to society of treating addiction is calculable.

But that cost rises as one considers secondary issues, such as criminal behavior driven by addiction. Many crimes are committed by non-addicted people, but the connection between addiction and crime is undisputed.

Age-restrictive laws are intended to ensure that young people have a fair chance to grow to full maturity in safe environments. By holding adults accountable for how they interact with teenagers, society hopes to prevent some exploitative situations. And let’s face it: some adults are unscrupulous enough to intentionally manipulate less mature teens into bad situations.

What Is the Youngest Legal Gambling Age in the World?

It’s impossible to be sure, but this Wikipedia article lists no age restriction for a Category D gaming machine in the United Kingdom.

The same article includes a few other restrictionless forms of gambling:

  • Private or non-commercial gaming and betting
  • Equal chance gaming (prize gaming permitted or licensed family entertainment)
  • Prize gaming at an unlicensed family entertainment centre or traveling fair
  • The United Kingdom also permits 16-year-olds to gamble in:
  • National lottery
  • Scratch off ticket games
  • Football pools

Another country enacting unusual gambling laws is Afghanistan.

They forbid all land-based gambling activities, but anyone of any age can gamble in an online system. Afghanistan may not be known for its high-speed Internet, but cell phones are widely used there. The Wikipedia article says that Tunisia may have inadvertently made gambling legal for all ages by failing to make it illegal for all ages.

The country of Malawi in southeastern Africa allows children as young as 5 to gamble in land-based casinos.

Other than the exceptions noted above, gambling laws around the world set the minimum age at either 18 or 21.

Also, the Wikipedia article may not be up-to-date, and some of the points listed above could be inconsistent with current laws in the countries named.

Conclusion

The ancient Roman writer Tacitus wrote in his famous treatise, The Germania, that the ancient Germans of his time had a reputation for gambling:

“An amazing thing to us is that they practise gambling as the serious occupation of their sober hours; and they hazard to win or lose so recklessly that, when all he has is gone, a player will stake his personal liberty on a last and decisive throw.

If he loses he goes into voluntary slavery; and, although he may be the younger and the stronger man, he suffers himself to be bound and to be sold. They exhibit herein a most perverse obstinacy, and call it paying a debt of honour.

Successful gamblers get rid of the slaves held under this title by selling them to the merchants in order to escape their share of the shame.”

While some historians question the accuracy of Tacitus’ description, there is some universal truth to the matter. Gambling has earned a hard reputation through the centuries. Some people do lose everything. For that reason society has learned to protect its youngest members (in most countries) from taking such risks until they have grown to an age to make sound decisions.

Life doesn’t promise we’ll always make the right decisions. That’s why we make laws to slow us down when we’re most apt to rush in where angels fear to tread.