It was late January when Google searches for “casinos” reached an all-time high in the UK. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and sent the gambling industry’s revenue spiralling downward. But as spending in casinos and betting sites dropped to zero during the first lockdown, online slots, poker, casino gaming, and virtual sports saw a significant increase.
Data collected from the Gambling Commission (the British body responsible for gambling regulation) showed that in March, online virtual sports betting increased by 88 per cent and online poker by 53 per cent compared to the same month in 2019.
The pandemic hit a country that was already home to big gamblers. A House of Lords report titled “Gambling Harm – Time for Action” published in July 2020 found that half the adults in the UK gamble at least once a month. A third of a million of UK citizens are “problem” or “disordered” gamblers. It is estimated that for each problem gambler, six other people – a total of two million – are harmed by the breakup of families, crime, loss of employment, loss of homes and, ultimately, loss of life.
Kishan Patel, a fifth-year medical student at Imperial College and CEO of TalkGEN CIC, a non-profit focused on gambling harm, is one of them. “My dad was a gambler and passed away with it seven years ago. I still live with the effects of that and the effects this had on my mum, who is still paying for a mortgage that went up massively because of his addiction.” Patel wants the issue to be taken seriously. “We need to start seeing this gambling crisis as a health problem,” he says.
Lockdowns, however, not only pushed gambling further into the online sphere. They also made people suffering from gambling addiction, those at risk of developing one, and those in recovery more vulnerable.
Tony Parente, a 41-year-old British man, belongs to the latter group. He was nine years old when his grandfather asked him to pick a horse for him. Later, when he was a teenager, gambling became a social activity he would share with friends at betting shops – at least that’s what Parente told himself. Whenever he won, everyone – his grandfather, his friends – kept telling him that he was very lucky. But like most gambling stories, Parente’s lucky streak soon came to an end. “It quickly escalated from being a social activity to something that took over everything.”
His relationship with gambling, Parente says, is the longest he ever had. But, it was also one that shattered his real-life ties with friends and family. He went from working hard and being good at his job as a manager for a car company to leaving for Dubai in 2010 in an attempt to escape gambling. After backsliding yet again, and coming back to England in 2016, Parente started to struggle with suicidal thoughts. “I asked my sister for £70 to get a train ticket to see my mum. I needed help. But instead I walked past a betting shop and spent the money there, even though I was in debt and had lost my family, my home, my business, and more importantly my sanity,” Parente recalls. “Looking back it was the best £70 I ever spent because losing them made me realise my addiction would kill me.”
At the time when Parente needed help, he could still benefit from social support. But according to the psychologists, operators from gambling companies, and affected problem gamblers we talked to for this article, lockdown has made everyday life particularly dangerous for gamblers at risk. Working from home, constant access to the internet, readily available triggers like alcohol and drugs, and a feeling of isolation or helplessness contributed to an increasing number of people turning to and intensifying their presence on online casinos and betting websites.
Today, three years later, Parente is in recovery and has become an outspoken activist on the issue. “If I was still gambling now, I would have gambled more and used it to escape,” Parente says. “I know that if I had been less secure in my recovery, this would have been a particularly risky time for me,” says Kerri Nicholls, another former gambler.
On the GamCare Forum, an online message board providing a space for users to share experiences about problem gambling, a user expressed similar worries. “The Covid-19 and the work from home situation, I’ve basically hit a downward spiral again,” they wrote. “However, this time it’s on the online slots. They say it’s one of the worst forms of betting because it’s ultimately a game designed simply to rip us whilst enticing us with its dazzling game play and catchy music, yet those hooked still go back time and time again.” someone else replied: “I can totally relate, the last two months have been very stressful and I found myself chasing the bonus games on slots for the possible big win.”
The Gordon Moody Association, a group that helps gambling addicts, told the BBC that in May the interactions on their helpline had more than tripled, and they had a 20-person waiting list for their residential treatment programme aimed at people with a gambling addiction – something unheard of in the organisation’s experience. Dominik Batthyany, a psychotherapist and head of the Institute for Behavioural Addiction at the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna, thinks gambling has become a coping mechanism. “Many people have lost their jobs, so they sit at home with nothing to do. Add anxiety or conflicts to that, and many will choose gambling as a way to cope,” he says.
But it was not only by boredom, frustration and chance that gamblers took to betting sites during Britain’s spring lockdown, leading to the spikes in betting registered by the Gambling Commission. Although the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), the UK industry association representing betting companies, vowed in April to suspend TV and radio ads in response to concerns over increased risk for vulnerable people during Covid-19 isolation, they were quickly called out for hypocrisy. Television advertising only accounts for 15 per cent of their advertising spendings, according to GambleAware, an independent organisation working with the Gambling Commission to reduce gambling harm. Online gambling marketing spending, however, is more than five times higher.
According to the House of Lords report the gambling industry spends £1.5 billion a year on advertising. It says 60 per cent of profits come from the “five per cent who are already problem gamblers, or are at risk of becoming so.” It wasn’t long after the supposed ad suspension that several companies found a loophole and employed “safe gambling ads”, which were – as an all-party parliamentary group on gambling harm claimed in a letter to culture minister Nigel Huddleston in May this year – simply commercials disguised as social responsibility messages. Some even featured the often-criticised slogan “When the FUN stops, stop” with the word “fun” in all-caps.
During the lockdowns, more time spent looking at a screen in order to work or kill time meant being exposed to more online gambling advertising. Online advertising for potentially addictive activities is particularly problematic because it’s targeting is based on the probability of someone clicking on a link. “And if someone is potentially vulnerable to gambling addiction, they are also more likely to click on the link,” says Julia Hörnle, professor of Internet Law at Queen Mary University of London. That is why it’s plausible that, during the worst of the pandemic, the people who were shown more gambling ads were exactly those who needed them the least – problem gamblers.
And then there is social media. Even if services such as GamStop allow internet users to block access to gambling sites, spending time on social media still exposes them to risks. “Blocking yourself from gambling websites is not connected to Google or Facebook. That means the internet will keep advertising to you in terms of your past interests,” says Michael Auer, data scientist and founder of Neccton, a service provider for responsible gaming solutions. On social media you could also encounter sponsored posts and stories promoting gambling more or less subliminally. On social media, the distinction between editorial content and advertising no longer exists. “Among all the content, it is very difficult to distinguish whether an influencer is being paid, or whether he is just an enthusiastic young man bragging about his latest bets,” says Hörnle.
Little protection of the most vulnerable users in the online sphere can be seen not only in advertising, but also in the way platforms seek to retain user attention once they’ve conquered it. Problem gamblers, for example, are often included in VIP schemes that give special treatment to those who gamble large sums. VIPs are a small, select group, representing not more than five per cent of customers but providing as much as half of a gambling operator’s deposits. Eight per cent of VIPs are estimated to be problem gamblers.
Once customers are brought into the scheme they receive special offers like free bets, bonuses, and loyalty rewards. They will be assigned a personal manager who phones and emails them regularly – often even befriending them and inviting them to football matches. But when it comes to making sure their “friends” are okay, the companies seem to fail.
They don’t usually carry out affordability checks on their VIP customers, so they can’t know if their VIPs are heading towards financial ruin. Additionally, VIPs are often kept in different databases and companies might still approach them even if they are in recovery and have blocked themselves from gambling websites – although this practice could be illegal and pursuable under the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Initiatives like these were always lurking online, and dangerous to vulnerable gamblers, but particularly so during the pandemic.
The UK’s specific legal framework is partly to blame. The 2005 Gambling Act put the country firmly on the path of gambling liberalisation – as many more companies were allowed to compete to get and retain consumer attention. This decision demonstrated its shortcomings when the universal adoption of smartphones and other digital devices enabled gambling 24/7. “During work, I would go for walks or to the toilet to gamble,” says Nicholls. “When you’re gambling, your phone is an extension of you.” As regulators failed to keep up with the digital revolution, operators found ways to exploit outdated regulations.
It does not help that the internet does not stop at the UK border, or necessarily adhere to national regulations. The way countries currently regulate gambling is through blocking websites of non-licensed and foreign companies. But anyone can now easily use VPNs to bypass the geoblocking of some websites. “If one country introduces extreme restrictions, players will stop playing there, but will pop up elsewhere. It’s like a balloon – you press it on one side and a bump will come up on the other side,” says Neccton’s Auer.
In the online world, restricting regulations in one country is not enough. “Harmonising regulation in all European countries could help to make rules easier to enforce,” says Hörnle, “but I think politically we won’t see this happening.” Plus, with Brexit now a reality, it’s unclear how the UK could benefit from a similar development.
People such as Tony Parente or Kerri Nicholls found a way out of their dire situations thanks to support organisations. But at a time when many more people are seeking help – as during a nation-wide lockdowns – support might come too late. For many, a regulatory solution would be a lifesaver.
When asked about how to protect users in a better way during the pandemic, the experts we spoke to all pointed to one solution: much more detailed guidelines for how gambling companies must protect vulnerable users. Some gambling companies may think this will lead to decreased profits. “But in reality, they are actually harming their own business by allowing disordered gambling to thrive,” says Auer. Promoting healthy engagement from users is more likely to keep them loyal for longer periods of time.
A Betting and Gaming Council spokesperson said that the “pledges” the industry signed at the start of the first lockdown resulted in the doubling of “safer gambling messages” on betting websites. “The number of direct interventions by operators where a player was spending more time or money betting than they did before went up by 25 per cent,” they added. They did not address direct questions on the kind of measures betting websites implemented to reduce problem gambling during the lockdown.
Auer told us that current analytics technology and user profiling can help companies detect early signs of disordered play even before the user becomes a problematic player. Constantly informing users about their own behaviour is not yet compulsory for online gambling companies. But information should come with responsibility. The more companies know about their users, the larger their duty to protect them – especially during a pandemic.
“I didn’t even think I was an addict until that last bet,” Parente told us about the time he was gambling so intensely that he couldn’t find a way to pull himself out. Perhaps the additional risks brought about by the Covid-19 crisis will help to focus attention on how to ensure that a potentially harmful tool such as user profiling is turned into an incredibly beneficial one.
The authors of this investigation were supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund