Betting firms are flouting advertising regulations by encouraging children to engage with gambling adverts for esports tournaments, according to a new report.
Researchers found children under the age of 16 made up a quarter of online users who responded to Twitter posts giving betting odds for professional computer game tournaments.
The authors of Biddable Youth, the report by think tank Demos and the Department of Management at the University of Bristol, have called on technology firms to use age verification tools to stop children from viewing gambling ads online.
Bookmakers have started offering odds for esports in response to the growing popularity of professional computer games competitions, as illustrated by the first Fortnite World Cup in America which had a 30 million US dollar (£24.75 million) prize fund.
The report analysed over 888,000 betting-related tweets over nine months in 2018, and found 28% of retweets or replies to esports betting tweets in the UK were from children under 16. The figure rises to 45% worldwide.
The UK figure is five times more than the amount of children who responded to betting tweets for traditional sports from bookmakers (5%).
According to the report 74% of the esports tweets appeared not to comply with advertising regulations by presenting gambling as an income source or encouraging gambling at unsociable times.
Some also breached regulations by showing a person under 25 in a gambling advert.
The Committees of Advertising Practice Code says on its website that marketing for gambling “must not be likely to be of particular appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture, particularly if they are generally available to view by them”.
The new report, funded by GambleAware, also said parents are likely to be unaware of their children engaging with gambling online as they may be able to place bets without access to a bank account by using cryptocurrencies.
Josh Smith, co-author of the report, said: “This report explores a vital new field of gambling online, which encourages people to bet on the outcome of video games.
“We found that high volumes of messages are produced to appeal particularly to children, with thousands of children in the UK following and responding to this content.
“This report also shows that advertising regulations are being regularly flouted by gambling advertisers online.
“We hope this report serves as a call to action – both to technology companies to make it easier for gambling customers to get a clear picture of what they’re getting into, and to regulators who must continue to ensure that these new actors are compliant with regulation.”
Professor Agnes Nairn, from the University of Bristol, said: “We were really surprised at the number of children actively engaging with esports gambling accounts.
“Yet with the massive growth in the esports industry, unless action is taken, we can only expect this figure to rise as sports and gambling seem to be inextricably linked.”
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, a leading campaigner for greater protections from gambling-related harm, said: “Tech firms can now target adverts in an unprecedented way, so many might wonder how such a shockingly high number of children engaging with gambling adverts is accidental.
“Parents and guardians will rightly want answers from an industry as these adverts could be leaving behind a damaging legacy.”
Esports, which is the competitive playing of computer games like Fortnite and Call Of Duty, is expected to have its market size reach $1.65 billion (£1.36 billion) and the betting market surrounding it worth almost 30 billion dollars (£24.75 billion) by 2020.
Tournaments around the world feature individuals or multiplayer-teams battling to win prize money up to £24 million.
Venues such as the Royal Opera House in London have attracted thousands of live spectators, with top tournaments attracting more than 60 million viewers made up of mostly young people and children.