A new study has exposed Britain’s hidden epidemic of young people spending millions of pounds every year on in-app purchases and video game add-ons.
The survey, compiled by the Safer Online Gambling Group, estimates that young people and families could be losing over £270 million each year through so called ‘loot boxes’.
The virtual items offer users the chance to gain greater players or upgrades in video games and mobile apps in return for cash, but they could be fuelling a dark economy.
One in two people aged 11-18 said they had used a loot box recently with the average spend on in-game content estimated to be £500-600 per year.
One in ten also said they had accidentally spent money on in-app purchases.
In response to the findings, former gambling addict David Bradford (63) and his son Adam (26) have handed in a dossier of research to 10 Downing Street in a bid to save young people from the perils of online gambling addiction.
Bradford said his addiction to gambling began in slot machines at the seaside but quickly escalated once online gambling became available.
He stole money from his employers and ended up serving time in jail, after remortgaging the family home and racking up hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of debt.
His ordeal took place in secret, with his family only finding out about his problem after he was jailed for stealing money in 2014. His son Adam who was aged 21 at the time of his father’s imprisonment, had to pick up the pieces and paid the bills whilst fighting off debt collectors and bailiffs.
Since then, the father and son team have formed the Safer Online Gambling Group – which has the backing of Labour politicians, major betting firms and the healthcare sector, to combat Britain’s spiralling gambling epidemic.
The group has also teamed up with Ladbrokes Coral owner GVC Holdings and will roll out a nationwide digital gambling therapy tool for gambling addicts early next year in partnership with the betting firm.
His son, Adam, said:
“It is stunning that young people who are not even of legal age to place a bet are being exposed to gambling content and insidious addictive gaming from the age of 3. The video gaming companies are getting away with murder.
“One case study told us that his child had been playing a maths game on his iPad and was then incentivised to level up the game and at the end of each level was rewarded with casino-lookalike chips into a digital wallet.
“The lines between gaming and gambling are starting to blur.
“In addition, the gambling industry needs to make absolutely sure that its affiliates and marketing agencies are screening out young people from digital adverts so that those who are under-age for betting are not exposed to addictive content and enthralling free bet offers before they are even legally allowed to vote.
“Online gambling is a silent killer and we already know as a society how devastating the effects of a gambling addiction can be.
“Whilst 2 million people in the general population are at risk of developing a gambling addiction, we need to stamp out these underhanded practices from gaming and gambling companies now through introducing age screening for digital adverts and a complete ban on in-app purchases in games licensed for children, before more families across the country are bankrupted.”
A spokesperson for the Gambling Commission added:
“We are concerned with the growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred and where we are clear that a product has passed the line into gambling and is posing a risk to players, we will take action.
“In 2017 we successfully brought the first criminal prosecution in this area in relation to Futgalaxy who we prosecuted for providing skins gambling to the underage.
“Where in-game items that are derived from loot boxes can be readily exchanged for cash, the loot boxes themselves are likely to fall within the definition of gambling.
“The greater the availability, scale and sophistication of secondary markets where the in-game items can be sold the stronger the case becomes that the in-game items are articles of money or money’s worth.
“Under current law we don’t regulate social casino gaming as it is currently self-regulated.
“However, for this self-regulatory model to maintain confidence we think the social casino industry – and the platforms through which they are accessed – should explore steps to prevent access by children.
“We certainly do not think that games that are described as “frequent and intense simulated gambling” should be made available to children and we are actively talking to the casino games industry about how children can be protected.”