scorecardAmerica's young men are blowing their money like never before
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America's young men are blowing their money like never before

Emily Stewart   

America's young men are blowing their money like never before
CryptocurrencyCryptocurrency6 min read

If you want to gamble in America these days, you have more ways to put your money on the line than ever. You've got the real-life casino, the casino on your phone, sports betting, crypto, meme stocks — even complex financial products like zero-day options can give you a quick hit of risk. For young men in particular, it's an enticing, if a bit troubling, prospect. But for a variety of companies, from sportsbooks to investing apps, an increased willingness to make some kind of gamble means business is booming. The boys-who-like-to-bet bank is open, and companies are making as many withdrawals as they can.

The level at which gambling has become normalized in the United States in recent years is stunning. Americans legally bet a record $119.84 billion on sports in 2023, up from $93 billion in 2022. Since the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law prohibiting sports gambling, more than three dozen states have embraced it in some form. Seven states have also legalized iGaming, meaning online blackjack, roulette, and slot machines.

And while not explicitly gambling, free trading apps such as Robinhood have gotten an increasing number of ordinary people into investing — for fun, to alleviate boredom, to try to make some extra cash. While many people have used the apps to build a stable portfolio, a good chunk of people are doing high-risk day trading or piling into meme stocks like GameStop, AMC, or, as Donald Trump's people are hoping, his newly public social-media company. Crypto is back again, and this time around, almost nobody is pretending the endeavor is about anything other than "number go up." Many video games have a gambling-like aspect, too, that gets kids and adolescents into the risk-minded pipeline.

While plenty of people across demographics are participating in these trends, data suggests the crowds skew younger and male. A 2023 survey from the NCAA found that sports gambling was prevalent among young adults, specifically on college campuses and among Black and Latino respondents. Pew Research found in 2022 that men and people under 50 were likelier to bet on sports than women and the over-50 crowd. Younger men tend to be more into crypto and meme-stock trading as well.

This isn't surprising. Men tend to take more financial risks than women. As investors, they're more prone to overconfidence, which often leads them to trade more — and, as a result, get lower returns. Men generally gamble more than women, and they've been found to have lower levels of impulsive coping in gambling settings.

The precise reason for this behavior is hard to pin down, said Timothy Fong, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the codirector of its gambling-studies program. There's a cultural component: In the '80s, young men were fed movies like "Wall Street," shown flashy cars and money, and told that greed is good. In the '90s and early 2000s, they were sold on more traditional forms of gambling and poker. Now they're being marketed sports betting and crypto. But it also goes deeper than that.

"For years, when we've studied gambling behaviors as well as other addictive behaviors, the trend has always been males more than females are impacted," Fong said. "People have said, well, is that a biological risk? Is that a culturally driven risk? Is that a psychological risk or a social risk factor? And basically, what I can say is that it's probably a combination."

There may be FOMO, as in fear of missing out. Younger men see their friends playing in crypto or betting on sports, and they want to join in. Many of them have income they're not doing more productive things with, especially in the wake of a pandemic that has a lot of consumers who were once trying to save up thinking, "Eh, screw it." Maybe 40 years ago a 28-year-old had a mortgage and a family to support. Now he doesn't have those responsibilities and can direct disposable income toward whichever stock he just saw recommended on Reddit or a bet on whether the next pitch in a baseball game will be a ball or a strike.

For years, when we've studied gambling behaviors as well as other addictive behaviors, the trend has always been males more than females are impacted

Kahlil Philander, a Washington State University professor who focuses on public policy and gambling, said this gambling boom is being compounded by a novelty effect. Many young people are being exposed to gambling for the first time. and a wide variety of products are being marketed aggressively to them. All the advertising dollars that have been spent on sports-betting platforms and crypto exchanges, for example, have amplified the exposure effect. The other part of the story is that many of these people haven't gambled before: Unlike a 60-year-old who's been there, done that, they haven't internalized the downsides.

"If there are risks or risk-mitigating strategies that individuals can take, they might not have learned those lessons yet," Philander said. "That can lead to higher levels of involvement, more harmful activity, all the types of things that people with more experience might have figured out for themselves one way or another."

At the heart of this is technology is the idea that guys don't have to walk over to the casino to place a bet or call a broker to trade a stock — they can just take out their phones.

"The technology that brings us that intersection between gambling, gaming, investing, and financial risk, that technology barrier is so low right now," Fong said.

For some young men, a level of nihilism about the economy leads to an impetus to take some risks. It shows up in movies like "Dumb Money," about the GameStop phenomenon, or "This Is Not Financial Advice," a documentary about dogecoin where the protagonists are portrayed as Davids against Goliaths — hedge funds, but also the economic system at large.

"We're at a place as a society where there are many new forms of gambling where the nature of investing and financial risk-taking is much different than it was before," Philander said.

The billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who has a penchant for doing some finger-wagging from time to time, described the shifting nature of investing in his latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors.

"For whatever reasons, markets now exhibit far more casino-like behavior than they did when I was young," he wrote. "The casino now resides in many homes and daily tempts the occupants."

Along with the rise of new customers, problem-gambling behavior is increasing, especially among young men. A 2023 report on the prevalence of gambling in New Jersey — where sports betting and online gambling are legal, and where Atlantic City is — found that men had double the rate of high-risk problem gambling than women and that those ages 18 to 44 were at the highest risk. The New Jersey report identified a significant prevalence of high-risk stock trading among young men. In the state, which pushed to have the federal law prohibiting sports betting overturned, calls to its problem-gambling hotline tripled in five years, with people 25 to 34 being the likeliest to reach out.

The casino now resides in many homes and daily tempts the occupants Warren Buffett

Most people who gamble don't wind up with an addiction. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, some 2.5 million Americans have a severe gambling problem, and another 5 million to 8 million have a problem it considers mild or moderate. That's a small sliver of the population. Plenty of people do some amount of betting and eventually fall off, or they dip in from time to time and are just fine. The public's interest in crypto ebbs and flows, and just because someone got into meme stocks for a while doesn't mean they're living on Wall Street Bets forever.

Still, the explosion of playing so much with money in the US is worrying, especially without a lot going on in the way of regulations, education, or safeguards to keep problem gambling in check. At least a sports-betting app will nudge someone to slow down if they go too far — there are virtually no protections in place if your day-trading habit gets out of hand, and many people don't even realize that what they're doing really is gambling. Fong told me he sees patients who will have lost thousands of dollars playing stocks and insist they just didn't time the market right.

"The one question I'll ask folks, I'll say, 'Does this behavior make your life better, or does it create problems?'" he said. "And that's it."

Casinos, sportsbooks, and trading platforms want to make money off bettors, and the way to do that is to get them to play more, not less. While many young men will eventually move on from their betting habits, not all of them will — and the company's hope is to turn them into clients for life.


Emily Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and the economy.




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