The gambling watchdog has urged people to “sit up and listen” after a study suggested the number of children classed as having a problem has quadrupled to more than 50,000 in just two years.
Research by the Gambling Commission indicates there could be a further 70,000 children aged 11 to 16 who are at risk of developing problems among the 450,000 children who bet regularly.
It suggests more children placed a bet in the past week than drank alcohol, smoked or took drugs.
The findings, reported by the Daily Mail, were described as a “generational scandal” by the Bishop of St Albans, the Right Reverend Alan Smith, a vocal campaigner on the issue.
The watchdog warned that while children were gambling via new technologies, such as apps and online casinos, large numbers are making bets through more conventional means.
Writing in the newspaper, Gambling Commission executive director Tim Miller called for a “joined-up approach” to keep children safe.
“There’s no doubt that today’s figures on children and gambling should make people sit up and listen,” he said.
“But while discussions about children gambling might conjure up images of kids sneaking into bookies or sitting alone on their iPad gambling on an online casino, our latest research paints a more complex picture.
“The most common activities that children gamble on are not licensed casinos, bingo providers or bookies.
“Instead we found children preferred to gamble in informal environments, out of sight of regulation – private bets between friends or playing cards with their mates for money.”
The commission’s report was based on an Ipsos Mori study of 2,865 11 to 16-year-olds carried out between February and July.
The youngsters were asked nine questions including how often in the last year they thought about gambling, how often they gambled to escape from problems or when they were feeling bad, or if they had ever taken money without permission to gamble.
If they showed four or more of the behaviours, they were classed as a problem gambler.
The results suggested 1.7% of the children were problem gamblers, equivalent to 55,000 youngsters – 42,000 more than in 2016, the newspaper said.
The study also suggested 2.2% of the 11 to 16-year-olds were at risk of developing problems, representing around 70,000 children.
The study found the most common routes into gambling were fruit machines in pubs or arcades and cash bets with friends.
Some admitted using betting shops or online gambling sites, despite them being illegal for under-18s
The analysis also suggests one in seven boys followed betting brands on social media.
The commission also raised concerns that close to a million young people had been exposed to gambling through “loot boxes” in video games or on smartphone apps.
These can involve a player paying money for an item that is only revealed after purchasing.
The commission has previously voiced concerns that the features are blurring lines between gaming and gambling.
Mr Smith said the country needs to take the “dangers of gambling seriously”.
He added: “Today’s findings by the Gambling Commission makes worrying reading and serves as a warning to parents.
“After years of progress, it seems the rates of children gambling is creeping back up. These figures suggest 450,000 11 to 16-year-olds have gambled in the past week – that is deeply concerning.
“We need to start taking the dangers of gambling seriously – 55,000 children classed as problem gamblers is a generational scandal.”