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Covid’s effect on young people with gambling addictions

Life for many has changed, considerably. Staying at home has replaced work, travel and socialising. Furloughing and joblessness has led people to rely on technology for entertainment and fulfilment.

These factors have bred the perfect environment for online gambling addictions to develop, as reflected in the number of active gambling accounts reaching 2.8m in November 2020. Alongside the pandemic forcing time indoors, changes in remote gambling legislation in 2014 has allowed online gambling to make up the largest share of the market.

As young people are more likely to gamble online, the average age of most UK gambling participants has consequently decreased. A 2020 survey by GambleAware found that UK gambling addiction is higher than previously thought, with nearly 2.7% of adults classified as problem gamblers (scoring over 8 on the Problem Gambling Severity Index), instead of the Gambling Commission’s previous estimates of 0.7%.

Although experts have warned that these figures may have been overestimated, they still recognise the likelihood that previous research underestimated addiction levels, particularly among young people, where the share of problem gamblers is the highest, with YGAM defining 88,000 UK students as problem gamblers, half of whom have debts of over £1,000.

Gambling addictions are notorious for the ease at which they can develop, often beginning at a young age with seemingly insignificant bets, which can progress into playing online poker, where money spent increases when individuals begin earning money.

Eventually, gamblers can find themselves taking out loans to pay off credit card debts, expending overdrafts and owing large sums. The recent rise in gambling addiction figures could potentially be explained by the lack of sporting matches in lockdown exacerbating this cycle where people turned more quickly to addictive casino-style games.

In younger groups, university life can breed the grounds for this process to develop, as it is often a lonely and overwhelming experience, which was worsened for some by the pandemic forcing isolation in student halls where online gambling is accessible. The growth in young people gambling is reflected in NHS findings that 47% of UK students have gambled in the last 12 months.

Liz Karter, UK gambling psychotherapist, states that an online gambling addiction can arise as a “distraction from thoughts and feelings”, a means of escapism through simple and repetitive forms of gambling such as slot machines or bingo which can be familiar and comforting.

Otherwise, some crave the excitement and anticipation of the ‘rush of the win’, with the opposing blow of loss leading individuals to continuously search for the elation of winning, which results in an addictive cycle of highs and lows. British medical experts have described gambling addiction as a “worsening public health predicament” due to its damaging consequences such as poor general health, severe weight gain/loss, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and alcoholism.

Gambling addictions can also cause relationship difficulties, financial worries, and homelessness, with a YouGov report finding that as many as 7% of adults have reported being negatively affected by someone else’s gambling problem. Gambling firms can exacerbate this damage by valuing profit over vulnerable customer’s well being, as in 2017, where the online gambling firm 888 was fined £7.8m after letting over 7000 people who had excluded themselves to access their accounts.

The high concentration of betting firms in some areas mean locals are more likely to become problem gamblers, which costs local authorities in betting shops-associated violent crime, but they often do not have the power to reject applications for betting shops due to their profit turnovers. However, the fact remains that gambling has been around for centuries, employs over 100,000 people in the UK, and it is not an industry likely to disappear any time soon. Even if gambling were to be banned, people would likely always find a way to gamble, and it could be more damaging if it were illegal.

Instead, further restrictions could slow play and prevent problematic gambling, such as online gambling companies introducing £2 stakes for slot games, more controls on casino content, and online restrictions similar to spend and stake limits in betting shops.
Such measures would show that the industry morally cares to protect their customers’ safety.

There have already been crucial improvements made in this area, with the Gambling Commission’s greater funding of treatment services and the work of helplines and charities such as GamCare, YGAM and GAMESTOP, and subsequently over the last few years the number of betting self-exclusions have increased, and amount of underage gambling has decreased.

Nevertheless, the UK government’s gambling laws enacted by the 2005 Gambling Act are some of the most relaxed globally, and recent dithering over regulating fixed-odds betting terminals is a partial neglect of a serious public health issue that should be addressed.

Accordingly, the growth of online gambling’s popularity and gambling addiction rates reflect that UK gambling laws are no longer effective for purpose. Additionally, GambleAware’s findings that nearly half of addicts were not receiving treatment should fuel these stronger measures to control gambling addiction, particularly amidst the increased risks of addiction due to Covid-19. The revelation that those with a Black, PoC, impoverished, and female background received less treatment should also lead to more attention paid to barriers to treatment.

The stigma associated with gambling problems and shame in getting help is perpetuated by the gambling industry’s narrative that emphasises individualised responsibility for harms, masking the deeper-rooted issues that they profit off: loneliness, and a lack of social funding and mental health support.

Breaking down this stigma and advocating for more restrictions on online gambling is vital to helping those with gambling addictions and reducing the harm they cause.

National Gambling Helpline: 0808 8020 133.

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