March Madness brings unique gambling risks for college students

Whenever March Madness takes place, it’s a sure bet that people will be wagering on the college basketball games leading up to the championship known as the Final Four.

From office pools to online betting platforms to taking a crack at picking the perfect bracket, the allure of predicting game outcomes and potentially winning big is irresistible for many. Beneath the surface of this annual sports event, however, lies a darker reality: the dangers of sports betting and gambling addiction.

College students face a unique risk. A significant portion are unaware of the consequences and are focused exclusively on making money – potentially jeopardizing their academic success, ability to remain in school and graduate.

While the majority of college students who are of legal age to gamble do so responsibly, one organization estimates that 6% of U.S. college students have a serious gambling problem that can result in psychological difficulties, unmanageable debt and failing grades. A 2022 report found more than 1 in 5 college students have used their financial aid to gamble.

A growing part of sports culture

As a licensed clinical psychologist who studies gambling among college students, I have observed that one of the key factors contributing to the rise of gambling addiction is the widespread normalization of gambling within sports culture.

These days, it’s impossible for sports fans to watch a game without seeing or hearing an ad that beckons them to place a bet.

The constant bombardment of betting promotions during March Madness can desensitize individuals to the risks involved, leading to impulsive decision-making and related behavior. Moreover, the increased number of states that have legalized mobile sports betting in recent years – now 30 – have made access to online sports betting easier, particularly for young people below the legal gambling age of 21.

A 2023 NCAA survey of 3,527 young people ages 18-22 found that sports wagering is pervasive among this group. The survey indicated that 58% have placed at least one sports bet. Sports wagering is widespread on college campuses – 67% of students living on campus are bettors and tend to bet at a higher frequency than students living off campus. Forty-one percent of college students who bet on sports have placed a bet on their school’s teams, and 35% have used a student bookmaker.

Ubiquitous gambling ads, risky behavior

Advertisements have a major influence: 63% of on-campus students recall seeing betting ads. This is a higher rate than found in the general population or those that commute or attend college virtually. Fifty-eight percent of those students indicate they are more likely to bet after seeing ads.

Problem gambling shows up in this population, with 16% having engaged in at least one additional risky behavior such as alcohol and drug use. Six percent report they have previously lost more than US$500 on sports betting in a single day.

Meanwhile, 70% of these risky gamblers believe consistent sports gambling will increase their monetary earnings. The accessibility of mobile sports betting has made this the preferred choice, with 28% choosing mobile options for their wagering. State legality and age restrictions do not pose much difficulty, as areas where betting is legal have nearly the same rate of engagement as areas where it is not.

Three young men pump their fists as they look at a cell phone while seated around a round table.
Many college students are unaware of the harms that stem from their gambling habits. GCShutter via Getty Images

Starts out fun

For some college students, gambling for fun can turn into a serious problem. Gambling addiction includes all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt or damage personal and family relationships or vocational pursuits.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, symptoms of gambling disorder include increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, and restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop. Symptoms also include “chasing” losses, frequent unexplained absences from classes or work, and visible changes in behavior such as mood or a sudden drop in grades. Those with a gambling disorder may also experience a decline in health, withdrawal from loved ones and loss of control. In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide.

Lowering the risks

While March Madness may be a time of excitement for sports fans, it’s essential to recognize the potential pitfalls and take steps to mitigate the risks.

Recognizing and responding to warning signs early can make a significant difference. Organizations such as the National Council on Problem Gambling provide confidential support and can connect individuals with services and treatment programs tailored to their needs. Call or text their helpline at 1-800-GAMBLER, chat with helpline counselors at www.1800gamblerchat.orgfind a treatment facility or attend a self-help meeting. is designed specifically to help students, campus health professionals and parents address gambling-related harms.

Therapy and support groups can be invaluable tools. Specifically, research shows cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing techniques have been effective in treating problem gambling by addressing underlying issues and helping individuals develop healthier coping strategies.

It’s important for individuals to evaluate their options for treatment and support based on their unique needs and circumstances.

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