With sports betting at his fingertips and a poker table a mouse click away, it was all too easy for Max Shona to spend hours gambling on the Internet. But as hours turned into days and the urge to win bigger began to consume him, the 22-year-old realized he had a problem.
"It was an addiction. I can admit to saying it," says Shona. "It still haunts me."
The Toronto native is now sharing his experiences in a youth-driven documentary that takes a hard look at the impact and experiences of gambling on his generation - online betting is an element that features significantly.
"Deal Me In" was produced by a group of students out of the Youth Voices Gambling Project at the University of Toronto. Put together last year, the film is rapidly gaining an attentive audience as it appears at film festivals and gambling awareness workshops around the country.
While Shona's gambling began when he was still in high school betting on $5 poker games, the move to cyberspace saw what had begun as a pastime spiral out of control.
"I went to online gambling, which is the devil. It's probably the worst thing in the world," he says. "It's so accessible ... and you just don't cash out."
Shona is among a handful of youth who have spoken out on camera as "Deal Me In" tries to bring the story of young gamblers to their peers.
"It's always harder to hear about people who lost it all," says Nikita Andreev, a University of Toronto engineering student who conducted the interviews for the documentary.
Even before working on the project, Andreev says he knew many students who dabbled in online gambling, and even a few who sought to really profit from it.
"It's rising in popularity more than other forms. You don't even have to leave your room," he says, adding that the convenience of gambling through a computer screen also made it easier for peers to cover up just how often they were betting online.
After appearing most recently at the University of Toronto film festival, the documentary is now showing in Sault St. Marie, Ont., and is also vying for a spot at Hot Docs, an international film festival in Toronto.
"We've had a fantastic response," says film team co-ordinator Jennifer Reynolds. "It works as a really good stepping point with conversations you can have afterwards."
Reynolds points out that while cases of problem gambling among 18- to 24-year-olds are growing, online betting hasn't been researched as heavily as other forms of gambling, as it's a fairly new phenomenon.
"It's something that I think has been under the radar," says Reynolds. "There's a normalization that comes with it and it's just so prevalent you can't get away - that's a concern."
Nigel Turner, a research scientist who specializes in gambling at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, agrees, adding that for problem gamblers quitting becomes a bigger challenge.
"You basically have to 'de-wire' your life. There could be a relapse problem every time you switch on your computer."
With most online gamblers being young males indulging in cyber poker or other activities requiring an element of skill, Turner points out that many new players are convinced they can actually turn a profit with enough practice and good strategy.
The relatively recent nature of the trend also means a large number of online gamblers with real addictions have yet to emerge in treatment, says Turner.
But that doesn't make the shift to cyberspace any less significant.
"It has potential for problems," he says. "This is an entirely new phenomenon."
Ultimately, it's this new phenomenon that "Deal Me In" seeks to highlight.
"We were not trying to just denounce gambling as an evil thing," says Andreev. "The main intention was just to educate people to the fact that gambling does exist among youth. We know it can be addicting and it's possible to get help."