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UK children bombarded by gambling ads and images online, charity warns | Gambling

Children are “saturated” with betting promotions and gambling-like content while using the internet, despite restrictions on ad campaigns targeting young people, new research reveals.

GambleAware, the charity funded by donations from gambling firms, commissioned research that found the risks of online gambling were not understood by children because of the “blurred line” between betting ads and popular online casino-style games. It warns gambling ads with cartoon graphics are likely to be strongly appealing to children. Last week, one gambling firm was promoting a new online slots game on social media with three cartoon frogs, urging people to “take a dip” with the “ribbiting rascals”.

GambleAware proposes fresh regulation to curb the amount of advertising seen by young people. The research commissioned by the charity found children struggled to distinguish between gambling products and gambling-like content, such as mobile phone games played with in-app purchases.

Zoë Osmond, chief executive of GambleAware, said: “This research shows that gambling content is now part of many children’s lives. This is worrying, as early exposure to gambling can normalise gambling for children at a young age, and lead to problems. We need to see more restrictions put on gambling advertising and content to ensure it is not appearing in places where children can see it. Urgent action is needed to protect children.”

The report was based on interviews with children and young people aged between seven and 25 about how gambling affected their lives. It found that young people felt their online activity was saturated with gambling promotions and gambling-like content.

GambleAware’s chief executive, Zoë Osmond, said urgent action on internet promotions was needed to protect children. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

It said a wider definition of gambling may be required to include excessive or compulsive engagement with online games that have elements of betting, such as loot boxes – which can be bought with virtual currencies or real money – and free fruit-machine slot games on Google Play and other platforms.

Nicki Karet, managing director of Sherbert Research, which worked on the study, said: “The grey area between online gambling and gambling-like gaming is confusing, especially for younger children, and blurs the lines between what is and isn’t gambling. This grey area is further confusing because gambling advertising, particularly online, often uses visuals and tonal expressions that can be seen to directly target children, such as cartoon graphics, bright colours and sounds.”

Under advertising rules, gambling firms are prohibited from using promotions targeted at children or likely to be of strong appeal to children or young people. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld complaints against gambling firms that have used Father Christmas, Spider-Man and the mascot from the Monopoly board game in ads.

Firms are advised against using cartoon or animated figures to promote gambling, but it is not a blanket ban. The online casino 32Red was last week promoting a Fat Frogs online slots game on social media app X with a picture of three cartoon frogs and heaps of gold coins.

Dr Raffaello Rossi, a lecturer in marketing at Bristol University who has researched the effects of gambling advertising on young people, said regulators had done “too little, too late” to cope with the huge volumes of online promotions that might appeal to children.

“We need to develop new advertising codes with researchers and technology experts which are designed to capture social media advertising,” he said, adding that a ban on gambling advertising should be considered if the regulations were not working properly. Rossi said online games with loot boxes and social casino games with in-app purchases required tighter regulation. A report by the Commons culture, media and sport committee in December recommended the government should review the case for banning children’s access to social casino games.

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The Betting and Gaming Council said: “Our members enforce strict age verification on all their products [and] have also introduced new age gating rules for advertising on social media platforms.

“Recent data from the Gambling Commission published last year showed young people’s exposure to gambling adverts and promotions had declined compared to the previous year. The government has previously stated research did not establish a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling.”

The ASA said it implemented restrictions on gambling advertising to protect children and was monitoring online gambling advertising, including the use of website scraping tools and avatar profiles to reflect browsing profiles of young people.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “We pay close attention to emergent forms of gambling and gambling-like products, including social casino games, to ensure that appropriate regulation is in place.”

The Kindred Group, which owns the 32Red brand, was asked for comment.

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