Online and mobile gambling has been associated with greater rates of problems, but not all types of online gambling are the same. A study of Australian online gamblers found that online pokies (i.e., slots) were the only online gambling activity that predicted experiencing gambling problems. However, venue-based pokies also predicted greater gambling problems. This confirms the current regulatory approach of prohibiting legal availability online slots in Australia and focus on pokies as the main determinant of gambling harm.
Australians are the world’s most prolific gamblers, spending roughly double the average for most Western countries. The prevalence of problem gambling in Australia is just under one percent with an additional four percent experiencing severe harms, making it nearly 1.5 times more common than heart disease. An estimated six others around those with gambling problems experience harms, which increases the impact across society. The social cost of gambling to the Australian community is estimated to be at least $4.7 billion a year. Commonly occurring harms include stress, sleep disruption and poor physical health as well as psychological distress often associated with spending more time and money than is affordable. However, severe harms include family breakdown, bankruptcy, unemployment, and suicide.
Pokies (also known as electronic gaming machines, poker/slot machines) account for around half of total gambling expenditure in Australia, around $12.14 billion and are reported to be the contributing activity by the bulk of those seeking help. However, online and mobile gambling is the fastest growing form of gambling in Australia, with one-quarter of those who have placed a bet in the past 12 months doing so via their mobile phone. People who gamble online are up to three-times more likely to experience significant gambling problems compared to land-based gamblers and online gambling appears to be associated with greater levels of sleep and eating disruption and psychological distress. Due to the potential harm associated with online gambling, the Australian Interactive Gambling Act prohibits the provision of all online gambling except for licensed wagering (e.g., race and sports betting) and lottery. However, offshore gambling is rampant in Australia with around 2,300 illegal sites accessible. Use of offshore gambling sites is associated with greater levels of gambling harms.
Making it difficult to determine which are the most risky forms of gambling, the most reliable predictor of gambling problems is overall gambling involvement – that is, people who experience harms, whether these be related to pokies, online, or offshore gambling sites, are likely to gamble on many different activities and use multiple modes of access. Indeed, previous research found that those who gamble online and in venues have higher rates of problem gambling than those who gamble only in venues or online. In order to understand which gambling activities and modes of access are the riskiest, we need to isolate their impact, while controlling for overall gambling involvement, something previous research has often failed to do.
Our study surveyed 998 Australians who had gambled online in the past 30 days to explore the unique relationship between frequency of participation in each gambling activity (by modality) and problem gambling severity as well as psychological distress. As shown in the table, the most popular activities were lottery (77% online, 54% in-venues), race betting (50% online, 37% in venues), sports betting (50% online, 36% in venues), and pokies (44% online, 50% in venues).
When controlling for demographic variance, overlap between activities and controlling for overall engagement, we found that the frequency of gambling on pokies online and in venues uniquely predicted greater problem gambling severity scores. As both online and venue-based pokies were independently related to gambling problems this suggests that there may be something about the product itself that is problematic, for example, the short interval between bets and outcomes enabling rapid, continuous periods of betting. These findings confirm the Australian government stance to prohibit this form of online gambling. Participation in online race and sports betting, (and lottery), which are legally provided in Australia, do not predict gambling problems, contrary to recent concerns about the proliferation of online wagering.
Only venue-based gambling was associated with psychological distress (i.e., high levels of stress, anxiety, depression) specifically sports betting, pokies, and casino games. This may indicate that people who experience psychological distress are more likely to gamble in venues, which supports the theoretical model that suggests people gamble to cope with these difficult negative emotions. It indicates that there may be something about gambling venues that provides relief from negative emotions, for instance the social environment, ability to interact with staff, or stimulating lights and sounds. Notably, these results are correlational only and do not indicate causation. As psychological distress is associated with sleep disturbances, it may be that gambling venues with late opening hours, are one of the few places someone with sleep difficulties can visit. These findings are important given the high rates of mental health problems in Australia, coupled with the high availability of land-based gambling. It suggests the importance of providing alternate activities for people, including after work and late at night when people may be unable to sleep and are feeling stressed with few activities to turn to.
As the survey did not include non-Internet gamblers, further research is needed to isolate the impact of venue-based gambling on problems. Nonetheless, this study is highly important to inform ongoing efforts to combat the serious issue of problem gambling in Australia and internationally. Efforts to reduce use of pokies both online and in venues are likely to have the greatest impact on gambling harms. Specific strategies are needed to focus on younger adults, who were found to be more likely to experience both gambling problems and psychological distress.
Multidisciplinary research is likely to offer important perspectives, such as that being conducted by the new Gather team at the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney. The Gather team works across disciplines and engages with stakeholders to contribute to a greater conceptual understanding of how and why people make decisions about technology use that lead to risks and potential harms, including online gambling. Gaining a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the psychological and neural bases underlying the way individuals make decisions involving emerging technologies will allow us to develop a more robust theory of problematic risk-taking behaviour involving such technologies to inform harm-minimising insights for policy.
Please see the freely available full paper: Gainsbury, S. M., Angus, D. J., & Blaszczynski, A. (2019). Isolating the impact of specific gambling activities and modes on problem gambling and psychological distress in internet gamblers. BMC public health, 19(1), 1372. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7738-5