Seven years of research into gambling addiction has concluded that up to 6 per cent of adolescents could become pathologically addicted to slot machines.
The research, published this week, highlights the way the gaming industry exploits young players and strongly condemns government policymakers who have ignored the dangers of fruit machine addiction.
Mark Griffiths, a chartered psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, stressed that he was not an anti-gambling campaigner. "Gambling is an enjoyable leisure pursuit that people will always engage in," he said. "I am all for responsible gambling but I feel that vulnerable people - especially young people - should be protected from the threat of an addiction that could ruin their lives."
Dr Griffiths argues that gambling addiction is as real as drug addiction, is more common among boys and is maintained by a combination of irrational thinking and psycho-physiological processes.
While certain personality traits can explain addiction, Dr Griffiths finds that the gaming industry exploits fruit machine players by designing machines which provide psychologically rewarding experiences rather than financial benefits. Their ploys include "near miss" buttons and sound or coloured lighting effects.
Despite the consequences of addiction - personal misery, concealment, family disruption and often imprisonment - Dr Griffiths claims the general public knows little about fruit machine addiction.
"Fruit machines are - albeit to a small minority - as problematical, as destructive and as addictive as any number of psychoactive drugs," he says.
Dr Griffiths's next project is an analysis of technological addictions to computer games, television and the Internet. "My own operational definition of this is that they are non-chemical behavioural addictions which involve human-machine interaction," he says. "They can be either passive (like television) or active (computer games) and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features that may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies."
The number of technological addicts is likely to rise, he argues, as the accessibility of products such as interactive CDs and virtual reality consoles increases.
Dr Griffiths concludes: "The casualties of the technological revolution will, if detected and formally identified as a problem, end up in the therapeutic domain of psychologists."
Adolescent Gambling, by Mark Griffiths, Routledge, Pounds 14.99.