NHS students with their project (L to R) Tommy Barker, Michael Roach, Sean Concannon/ Credit: Trish Roach

In March 2023, online sports betting became legal in Massachusetts for people age 21 and older. According to Needham High School rising seniors Michael Roach, Sean Concannon and Tommy Barker, however, the age restriction has not stopped underage betting among Needham youth. In their survey of 60 NHS students, 45% said they have gambled online. 

The research assignment was part of the school’s Civics Showcase that took place in early June. The annual showcase, cosponsored by the high school history department and the League of Women Voters, required students to present their research and to suggest solutions to current problems.

Concannon said he considers the attraction to gambling similar to the attraction to drugs and alcohol. “You get the same adrenaline rush,” he said. “When you hit a bet and you see that you’re getting money, you’re going to want to come back for more and keep getting money.”

Of course, Concannon pointed out, losing creates a desire to continue betting in order to earn the money back. 

“Gambling can cause increased depression, increased anxiety, difficulty with family relations and financial struggles,” said Sara Shine, director of Needham Youth Services. 

Shine also pointed out that, like so many other challenges facing youth, this one is connected to pervasive phone use. “Phones lead you down these rabbit holes of various things,” she said. “Just like when young people search for dieting tips on their phones, they may end up on pro-anorexia sites. Young people may do a bit of gambling and then all these ads come up, and Instagram groups about gambling tactics, and YouTube videos about gambling.”

Wagers are being placed in real time on a wide variety of outcomes. It’s not just betting about the winner or loser or betting with a point spread. “There are multiple different things you can bet on in a game,” Barker said. “I don’t think I could name all of them.”

The students said sites such as DraftKings, FanDuel, Fliff and PrizePicks were the most commonly used. On those sites gamblers can wager on the outcome of single plays, individual player performance and, for football games, even the coin toss — among many other things.

All three students said they knew of instances of live bets being placed by students sitting in classrooms.

They said gambling sites market effectively to a younger audience. Roach pointed to a DraftKings ad featuring former Red Sox star David Ortiz. “As a young kid, if there’s someone you look up to and see that they’re betting, you’re going to want to start using that platform,” he said. 

Information about probabilities and betting lines are a routine part of sports broadcasts. Apple TV+, which has picked up MLB games, keeps the odds of various batter outcomes on screen throughout the game. The odds change with every pitch.

Online sports gambling should not be confused with fantasy sports. In fantasy sports, “You draft players from different teams all across the league,” Barker explained. 

“Fantasy sports can be cash free and can be a good way to connect with your friends,” Concannon said. “But I know that people bet on it, and it’s a thing that’s highly looked upon by all generations. That can lead to people getting into the more serious versions of betting.”

Fantasy sports has a long history among Needham youth. When Adam Veaner was a sophomore at Needham High School in 2005, he and a group of friends began competing in a fantasy sports league. Now spread across the country, 11 of the 12 original participants still compete. One of the original participants stepped aside, in part, because fantasy sports triggered the desire to gamble. 

“It has been an amazing experience, a way to stay in touch,” Veaner said. “In high school, there was no money involved. At some point in college it was $20 to play. Mostly the money was just a way to incentivize people to pay attention.”

Veaner said when he attended Needham High School, some students had trouble with online poker, which had just peaked in popularity. “We didn’t have smartphones,” he said. “If I did, I’m sure I would have been using DraftKings.”

Roach said the online gambling platforms have features that are supposed to prevent underage gambling, but they’re not effective. “They just enter their parents’ birthdays and bypass age verifications,” he said.

Roach, Concannon and Barker said Massachusetts should require gambling sites to use biometric verification such as fingerprint scanning and face ID. Banks could also help manage the problem. Betting sites have to be linked to a bank account or a debit card. “When you set up a bank account, obviously the bank knows your age,” said Concannon. “The bank could notify the app and close down the account.”

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