Selected Protective Factors Specific to Gambling

A “protective factor” is a positive attribute, condition or situation that helps support and promote health and wellness. An individual, family, community, and the larger society all have “protective factors”. A few protective factors are discussed here in relation to gambling.

Many of us had our first exposure to gambling activities as children: receiving scratch tickets in birthday cards or Christmas stockings; watching or participating with parents and family members playing cards or bingo for money; pitching pennies, wagering on the Superbowl or joining a March Madness pool. Or perhaps our first exposure was a family outing to the track, playing in a fantasy sports league, or playing keno at a bar or restaurant with friends. Gambling as a pastime and entertainment is normative and pervasive in the US. Rites of passage such as turning 21 or bachelor/bachelorette parties have migrated from bars to the casinos. In many ways, our “age of onset” for gambling is younger than alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

Overall, there is a sense that these activities are safe, fun, and purely entertainment; indeed, for 95% of people, they are. But for five percent of the population, gambling can cross the line into problem or compulsive behavior, the more severe of which is now classified in the DSM-V as the first behavioral addiction: “disordered gambling”. Add to that the parents, children, spouses, friends, employees, employers and other loved ones and “persons affected”—by some estimates up to 9 people for each problem gambler—that’s a lot of people.

“Knowledge” is a major “protective factor”, a positive attribute that helps support and promote health and wellness. Over time, as science based data has emerged, our culture has expanded its’ knowledge base and dramatically shifted norms on cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and automobile safety, to name a few examples. These shifts in norms have resulted in improved health outcomes and reduced traffic fatalities. Gambling, however, remains an enigma: revenues, cultural norms and money biases converge to support the status quo and hide the negative impacts.

Therefore, it is all the more important to expand our knowledge on gambling and the impacts of problem gambling. What follows is a brief discussion of a few “protective factors” related to gambling.

Knowledge: Problem Gambling Services promotes three important messages:

  1. Gambling is the act of risking money or something of value on an uncertain outcome in hopes of receiving something of greater value. Therefore, gambling is not a risk-free activity.
  2. Know how to keep the problem out of gambling. Set a limit on how much time and money, and stuck to it. View gambling as entertainment, not as a way to make money. Balance gambling with other leisure activities. Use common sense strategies: gambling should be viewed as entertainment. Learn about money management. “Financial literacy” enables a more realistic view of how to make money.
  3. Know that help is available for people who experience problems with their gambling. Connecticut has a statewide network of “Bettor Choice” gambling treatment programs, and services are available at low or no cost. Family members and loved ones are also eligible to receive services whether or not the gambler is in treatment. There is a toll-free, 24/7 Helpline, and chat and text are available.

Knowledge of brain development is central to understanding why disordered gambling is considered an addiction. In fact, the adolescent brain, still in active development until the mid-twenties, is a perfect fit for the excitement and “low effort/high reward” dynamic of gambling. Prior to full maturation, the adolescent brain has heightened sensitivity to reward and novel stimuli, and risk taking, particularly in groups, is associated with positive outcomes. Capacity for good judgement and decision making is underdeveloped. Age of onset, an early win, and excessive play are all considered risk factors for developing a problem with gambling.

Skill building aligns with knowledge: how to make good decisions and manage the stressors of everyday life is fundamental to good health. Knowing how to express needs and desires in a healthy way and the ability to make and maintain positive relationships are essential. Exercise, healthy eating, , time in nature, “free play”, limits on screen time, reading books and balancing a variety of activities are all part of the “holistic approach” which contributes to a healthy, well-balanced person.

Family Involvement is a key protective factor. The ability to connect and form positive and supportive relationships starts within the family. Just as role modeling and reinforcing positive behaviors are important, so is limit setting. Limits on “screen time” and specifically on video gaming and e-sports (organized professional gaming) should be set and enforced. Excessive time in these activities can have serious impacts on brain development and are associated with other risk behaviors, including on-line porn consumption.

“Belief in a positive future” is a powerful protective factor. However, this can be complicated in relation to gambling, which can be both the “problem” as well as the “solution”. With most risky behaviors—alcohol and other drug use, for example—outcomes do not improve with more use. But one more bet could result in money for the bills, or more. The “hope factor” and cycle of intermittent rewards is what hooks the gambler into repeated play. One last binge could solve all problems. Data show that the less education achieved and money made, the more problematic the play. Couple this with the proliferation of gambling opportunities and advertising and media presence for the gambling industry, and citizens already disenfranchised become more at risk themselves. This reminds us of the need for understanding the odds, and to possess a realistic grasp of how to make money. Knowledge!

The beauty and great benefit of protective factors—specifically knowledge, skills, a positively involved family and optimism towards the future—is that they can be interchangeable and transferrable. In general, they support the individual no matter what the situation. True “prevention” is just this, skills, attributes and situations that “come before” and equip the individual with what s/he needs to handle whatever situation is presented. Even better is when there is knowledge specific to the unique situation, in this case, gambling.

For fact-based information sheets, Bettor Choice Treatment Program contacts, links to educational studies, videos, downloadable materials, community resources and more, visit Problem Gambling Services website,

Susan D. McLaughlin, M.P.A., C.P.S.
Prevention Coordinator, problem Gambling Services