Reliable data for problem gambling has been hard to come by over the years, and this lack of data becomes even more of an issue when we try to examine the very new industry of online gambling and its impact on problem gambling rates.
Online gambling dates back only some 15 years, which makes it difficult to determine any long term impacts the industry has had on gambling trends, including problem gambling rates.
However, there is now mounting evidence showing online gambling has had very little to no impact on problem gambling rates. While more research needs to be done, these initial findings are beginning to dispel some of the myths and anecdotal claims online gambling critics are fond of using: Online gambling increases accessibility which increases problem gambling.
The first study that punched a hole in the online gambling leads to problem gambling argument was a 2011 Harvard research study, conducted by addiction specialist Howard Schaffer.
Schaffer’s study found that increasing accessibility and/or wagering options does not contribute to an increase in problem gambling rates. Schaffer’s research began in 2005 and was assisted by the online gaming site bwin, which provided Schaffer with access to data from the site, including wagering habits of casino and poker players.
In addition to finding most online gamblers play infrequently and wager small amount of money, Shaffer concluded no evidence could be found linking gambling online to an increase in the risk of becoming problem gambler. Schaffer went on to note that in addition to not increasing problem gambling rates, 75 percent of online problem gamblers had already evidenced other addictive traits before gambling online.
In fact, Schaffer’s research demonstrated the capability of the vast data available to online providers to spot problem gambling behavior early on. With proper regulation and funding this early detection system could be used to identify and help problem gamblers before they spiral completely out of control.
University of Buffalo Study
A second study released earlier this year by the University of Buffalo backed up Harvard’s findings.
The study happened after the University of Buffalo was selected to receive a $3 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to examine the rate of problem gambling over the past decade.
The lead researcher Dr. John Welte, PhD is certainly unbiased, having already linked a rise in problem gambling to proximity to land-based casinos, so even he was surprised to find problem gambling rates had remained flat over the past decade despite increased accessibility, particularly the onset of online gambling.
In addition to problem gambling rates remaining static, Welte and his fellow researchers found participation rates had dropped. “Our results show it is clear that U.S. residents are gambling less often,” Welte noted.
The findings which contradicted his earlier findings regarding land-based accessibility left the researcher flummoxed, and trying to find a reason for the paradoxical results:
“It may be due to the economic downturn we experienced starting in 2008, which resulted in a decline in casino business,” Welte opined before offering up a second possibility. “It also could be due to the ‘theory of adaptation’ — that while initial increases in exposure to gambling venues lead to increases in rates of problem gambling, a population will eventually adapt and further negative consequences will not continue.”
UK CAP Study
Finally, a new study from a UK group completely debunks long held beliefs that advertising and certain types of ads contribute to problem gambling. This latest study was conducted by the UK’s Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), an independent organization in the UK.
CAP’s study focused on whether the changes in advertising that began in 2007 “might contribute to problem gambling-related harms or impact on children and young people.”
What they found was consistent with both Harvard’s and the University of Buffalo’s findings: Problem gambling rates had remained relative flat, regardless of the regulations in place:
“Problem gambling rates and participation rates among children and young people have both been at worst stable during a period of unprecedented growth in gambling advertising.”
“The impact of gambling advertising, both on the propensity toward problem gambling and underage participation, is limited.”
While focused on advertising, the report also calls in question concerns over Internet gambling, which proliferated during the mid- to late-2000’s – the period the study researched. If the demagoguery of online gambling’s naysayers were true there should have been a significant spike in problem gambling rates as well as in underage participation.
Considering there has not been a spike in either category, and despite the onset of online gambling and less restrictive advertising regulations, the data seems to indicate that accessibility, advertising, and the speed and ease of online gambling have not contributed to any measurable increase in problem gambling.