Gambling and Sports Betting Among College Students

Jul 8, 2023

Gambling and Sports Betting Among College Students

Usually, when we think of a compulsive gambler we picture Las Vegas and slots, or perhaps an older man at a horse racing track. It may come as a surprise that college students are at a high risk for gambling addiction. With the prevalence of sports betting apps, the incidence of college students gambling is getting progressively worse. In actuality, college students have the highest rate of pathological gambling in any group. 

What's Happening On College Campuses

With increased access to sports betting apps it is easier than ever to be exposed to gambling. As sports betting is becoming more available due to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling students are feeling the pressure. 

As of now, five major colleges, Michigan State, LSU, University of Maryland, University of Denver, and University of Colorado have partnerships with sports betting companies. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas has a contract with DraftKings that includes the naming of an on-campus center for gaming innovation. 

As a result of one of these partnerships, students at LSU received an email from Caesars offering free bets. With the online gambling industry projected to be worth over $145 billion dollars by 2030, it’s no wonder these companies are looking for a new market.

Facts about College students and gambling:

As sports betting and gambling in general are on the rise it’s important to look at the data surrounding the risk for college students. 

  • The rates of young individuals being at-risk for problem gambling are two to three times higher compared to adults.

  • In terms of policies in U.S. colleges and universities, nearly all of them have guidelines regarding student alcohol use. However, only 22% of these institutions have established formal policies addressing gambling.

  • Researchers estimate that approximately 75% of college students, whether legally or illegally, engaged in gambling within the past year.

  • In the United States, around 6% of college students are affected by a serious gambling problem.

  • Among college students, the most popular gambling activities include playing the lottery, with a participation rate of 41%, followed by card games at 38%, and sports betting at 23%.

  • Approximately 67% of college students partake in sports betting.

  • Nearly 30% of male athletes engage in sports betting, with the report indicating that 26% of these athletes began gambling before high school, while 66% started during high school.

  • Athletes are considered high-risk individuals for sports gambling due to factors such as their competitive personalities, desire for action and excitement, perception of social norms, and sense of entitlement.

Why College Students Gamble

There have been studies examining why college students gamble. Most students say that money was the primary reason that they gambled. Other reasons students cited were:

  • Enjoyment

  • Social reasons

  • Excitement

  • Boredom

Students who smoke, drink, or use other drugs have high rates of gambling problems. Proximity to a casino is associated with rates of gambling problems in college students.

Whatever the reason students are taking to gambling, the risk and negative impact shouldn’t be ignored.  

Risk Factors for Gambling Amongst College Students

Gambling addiction among college students is a growing concern, and understanding the risk factors can help in developing preventive strategies and support systems. Here are key risk factors that contribute to the prevalence of gambling among college students:

  • Age and Developmental Stage: College students are typically at an age where they are experiencing newfound independence and are more prone to engage in risk-taking behaviors. Their decision-making processes are still maturing, making them more susceptible to addictive behaviors, including gambling.

  • Financial Stress: Many college students face significant financial pressures, including tuition fees, living expenses, and student loans. The prospect of winning money through gambling can be a tempting solution to these financial strains, despite the high risks involved.

  • Peer Pressure and Social Influence: The influence of peers plays a significant role in a student's life. If gambling is a common activity within their social circle, students are more likely to participate in it. The desire to fit in or be part of a group can drive students toward behaviors they might otherwise avoid.

  • Accessibility and Convenience of Gambling: With the rise of online gambling platforms and mobile betting apps, gambling has become more accessible than ever. This ease of access increases the likelihood of students engaging in gambling activities.

  • Mental Health Issues: Students dealing with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or ADHD are at a higher risk for developing gambling problems. Gambling can initially seem like a way to escape or cope with mental health challenges, leading to a problematic cycle.

  • Substance Abuse: There is a strong correlation between substance abuse and gambling addiction. Students who engage in excessive alcohol consumption or use drugs are more likely to gamble, often exacerbating both issues.

  • Lack of Awareness and Education: Many students are not fully aware of the risks associated with gambling. Without proper education and awareness about gambling addiction, students might not recognize the early signs of a problem.

  • Family History of Addiction: A family history of addiction, whether it's gambling, alcohol, or drugs, can increase a student's propensity towards addictive behaviors, including gambling.

  • Cultural Factors: Cultural attitudes towards gambling play a role. In cultures where gambling is normalized or glamorized, students may be more inclined to view gambling as an acceptable or harmless activity.

  • Stress and Academic Pressure: The stress of academic life, including the pressure to succeed and fear of failure, can lead students to seek out gambling as a form of stress relief or distraction.

  • Lack of Regulation on Campus: In some cases, the lack of strict regulations or policies regarding gambling on campus can create an environment where gambling is more socially accepted and less monitored.

  • Marketing and Promotions Targeting College Students: Aggressive marketing strategies by gambling companies, including promotions and advertisements specifically targeting college students, can entice them to start gambling.

Dangerous for Developing Brains

The impact of gambling and sports betting on the developing brains of college students is a topic of increasing concern. During the college years, the brain is still in a critical phase of development, particularly in areas responsible for decision-making, risk assessment, and impulse control. Engaging in gambling activities during this formative period can have significant and long-lasting effects. 

Neuroscientific research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls decision-making and impulse regulation, is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. This incomplete development means that college students are more prone to making impulsive decisions without fully considering the consequences. When gambling, this can manifest as a diminished ability to resist the temptation to place bets or to know when to stop, leading to problematic gambling behaviors.

Furthermore, gambling and sports betting can alter the reward system in the young brain. Winning a bet can trigger a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This dopamine release can be particularly potent in younger individuals, leading to a heightened sense of reward that reinforces the gambling behavior. Over time, this can lead to a dependency on gambling activities to trigger these dopamine releases.

Additionally, the stress associated with gambling losses can also have a detrimental effect on the developing brain. Chronic stress has been shown to impact areas of the brain such as the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in emotional regulation and memory. For college students, this stress can exacerbate academic pressures and impact their overall mental health and well-being.

The social aspect of gambling and sports betting also plays a role in its impact on the developing brain. During college, students are forming critical social and interpersonal skills. Excessive gambling can lead to social isolation, as students may withdraw from social activities and relationships to focus on gambling. This isolation can impede the development of these essential social skills, further affecting emotional and psychological growth.

As college students wrestle with issues of pathological gambling they may often feel:

  • Feelings of guilt and depression. 

  • Risky sexual behaviors.

  • Low social support.

  • Suicidal ideation.

Tragically, up to 18% of college students with gambling problems attempt suicide.

What are the Warning Signs

If you suspect you or a loved one has a problem with gambling there are some signs to be aware of. 

  • Financial difficulties: One common sign of a gambling problem in college students is experiencing financial difficulties. They may start struggling to pay their bills, accumulate debt, or borrow money from friends or family to fund their gambling habits. They might also have a sudden change in their spending habits, such as constantly asking for loans or selling personal items to cover their losses.

  • Neglecting academic responsibilities: Another sign is when a college student starts neglecting their academic responsibilities due to excessive gambling. They may skip classes, neglect assignments or studying, and their grades may begin to decline. Their focus shifts from their education to the excitement and obsession with gambling, resulting in a negative impact on their academic performance.

  • Emotional distress: College students with a gambling problem may experience emotional distress and exhibit noticeable changes in their mood and behavior. They may become irritable, anxious, or depressed when not gambling or when faced with financial losses. They might also exhibit signs of restlessness or agitation when unable to engage in gambling activities.

  • Social isolation: Gambling problems can lead to social isolation in college students. They may withdraw from their usual social activities, such as spending time with friends or participating in extracurricular activities, in favor of gambling. They might also start avoiding friends and family members who express concern about their gambling habits.

  • Lying and secretive behavior: College students with a gambling problem often engage in lying or deceptive behavior to hide the extent of their gambling activities. They may lie about their whereabouts, make excuses for their financial situation, or become secretive about their activities and expenses. This behavior is often an attempt to maintain their gambling habits while avoiding judgment or intervention from others.

It is important to note that these signs may vary from person to person, and the presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean that someone has a gambling problem. If you suspect that you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, it is advisable to seek professional help from a counselor, therapist, or support group specializing in gambling addiction.

Getting Help

College students facing gambling problems can find various sources of help to address their situation and seek support. Here are some avenues for assistance:

  • Campus Counseling Services: Most colleges and universities offer counseling services that can provide support and guidance for students struggling with gambling addiction. Students can schedule appointments with counselors who specialize in addiction and receive confidential assistance.

  • Support Groups: Joining support groups specifically tailored to gambling addiction can be beneficial. These groups provide a safe space for individuals to share their experiences, learn coping strategies, and receive support from others who have faced similar challenges. Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is a widely recognized support group that holds meetings in many locations.

  • Helplines and Hotlines: There are national and regional helplines available for individuals seeking help with gambling addiction. These helplines provide confidential and immediate assistance, guidance, and referrals to local resources.

  • Online Resources: Several online platforms offer information, self-help tools, and resources for individuals dealing with gambling problems. Websites like the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) provide educational materials, self-assessment tests, and links to support services.

  • Therapy and Treatment Programs: Students may benefit from seeking professional therapy or enrolling in treatment programs that specifically target gambling addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing are commonly used approaches to address the underlying causes of the addiction and develop healthier habits.

College students with gambling problems must take the initiative to seek help and support. By utilizing these available resources, they can take steps toward recovery, regain control over their lives, and make healthier choices.


Risk factors for gambling and substance use among recent college students -  Drug Alcohol Depend 

Young Adults in the 21st Century - Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults 

Gambling disorder in adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A case report - Psychiatry Research Case Reports 

Substance misuse and problem gambling - Commonwealth of Massachusetts  

The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know - National Institute of Mental Health 

Stress Effects on Neuronal Structure: Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex - Neuropsychopharmacology 

A qualitative examination of the impacts of financial stress on college students’ well-being: Insights from a large, private institution - Sage Open Med 

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