For most people, online gambling is an entertaining activity that they can pick up and leave, whenever the mood takes them. However for some, knowing when to stop can become a problem. It is estimated that around 350,000 people in the UK suffer from a gambling addiction, and NHS statistics show that only 5% of these problem gamblers seek help, and of these just 1% get treatment.
There is a vast spectrum of online gambling users. It ranges from those who are recreational gamblers who experience no problems, to those with severe problems and struggle to stop using sites. Of course there is also a middle area populated by those who are regular gamblers, who need to be aware of the impact their choice of entertainment may have on them and others around them.
To a beginner, the promise of a thrilling experience based mostly on luck, is an attractive one. They will enjoy playing a game of bingo every now and then, and perhaps have a small win as often. Most people fall into this category, experiencing online gaming as a social activity and enjoying time spent within a pleasant and welcoming environment. The adrenaline rush from achieving a big win makes the player feel good, and this is an understandably satisfying reaction. And if they lose, they have the ability to walk away.
Whilst this describes the vast majority of online gamblers, there are a small proportion of people that become addicted to the seductive thought of winning ‘next time’, and will keep going until they do. This leads to them spending as much money as required to achieve this end.
Problem gambling becomes an issue when it impacts negatively on the life of the person affected, as well as potentially the relationships with those around them. If you’re concerned that you or someone you know may have a problem with gambling, there are some signs that your suspicions may be justified.
If someone is spending more money than they can afford on online gambling, they will be getting into debt. There may be requests for loans which are never returned, and bills may be left unpaid. This is affecting relationships by putting financial, emotional and physical strain on the gambler and other people in their lives.
Perhaps you or someone you know used to be a happy and relaxed character, but this personality has now been replaced by one marked by anxiety, agitation and defensiveness. They may also be secretive about their finances and general activities. These could well be the symptoms of someone struggling to deal with the stress of online gambling addiction, and the resulting pressure it puts on all other areas of their life.
If other interests and hobbies have taken a back seat to gambling online, there is likely to be a problem. It is not healthy to position gambling as a higher priority than spending time with family and friends, and to only be thinking about wanting to gamble when you are with them.
If gambling is a casual activity that is controllable, the amount played with doesn’t affect enjoyment. The thrill comes from the possibility of winning, but knowing that there’s a good risk of loss. If needing to play with ever increasing amounts just to get a buzz out of a game starts occurring, then problem gambling has already established itself. Like any addiction, it needs to be fed to be sustained.
Feelings of enjoyment and temporary excitement which can be walked away from may have been replaced with those of tension and worry. When playing is no longer fun and is now a source of stress, this is a classic sign of crossing the line into addiction.
There are means by which online gambling sites can control play. Indirect measures include actively encouraging the practice of sensible gambling by explaining it is best to keep within your limits. When you are playing bingo for example, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and lose track of how much you are spending. Sites suggest setting yourself a limit as to how much you want to spend before any given session.
Many sites also feature controls and software that help players manage this. For example, you can pre-set a daily or weekly deposit, or set a time limit for yourself. Vampire Bingo has such software in place. They encourage responsible gambling by helping to suggest you limit the amount of money you can stake/wager on their games. They have a dedicated Customer Support team who are there to help or answer any questions about this.
Other features include a cooling-off period, which encourages players to take a break if they feel it is needed, without having to completely self-exclude themselves. Butterfly Bingo has an extensive “Take a Break” programme, which allows players to request their account be blocked from 1 day to 6 months.
Some sites even have a scheme which enforces player deposit limits. For example, Bingo Liner has a programme which is dependent on how long the user has been at the site. For example, customers who have been using the site for two months or less are limited to varying deposits. These are 14 credit card purchases and/or £1,000 per day, 50 credit card purchases and/or £2,500 per week, and 100 credit card purchases and/or £10,000 per month. Customers of more than two months have slightly more generous limits. These are 20 credit card purchases and/or £2,500 per day, 80 credit card purchases and/or £20,000 per week, and 250 credit card purchases and/or £30,000 per month.
However, if self-exclusion really is the only option left, this allows the blocking of access to the playing account. This can be put into place for generally a minimum of six months, or indeed permanently. The account will not automatically be reopened after the minimum period has passed, so the decision as to whether there is still a problem will need to be made.
The best way to avoid developing an online gambling addiction is to stick to some rules you make for yourself before you even start playing any games.
These might include:
You need to go into online gambling with your eyes wide open. You must expect to lose any money you play with. Therefore don’t gamble when you have little to no funds to fall back on, in the event of things not going your way.
When you do have the funds to play, that’s great, but you must be aware of how often and how much you are playing online games. It’s fine to enjoy a gamble on sites every now and then, but not to the point that it becomes an obsession.
The best way to self-regulate is to be strict with how much time and money you will spend during a session. It’s easy to get carried away once you’re playing, especially when you’re winning. And when you’re losing it can be just as easy to fall into the trap of deciding to keep playing to try and win your money back.
If you’re an emotional gambler – i.e. turning to online gaming as a means of escaping and avoiding difficult feelings you might be experiencing, then you risk playing irresponsibly. If you use online gambling as a therapy then there’s a very high chance you’ll end up getting addicted to the comfort it provides, and then a problem with online gambling will develop from there.
The first and biggest step is to realise and admit there is a problem with online gambling. Once this has been faced up to, there is plenty of help available.
Talking to a loved one is an important part of tackling the problem, but if talking to someone impartial is preferable, there are professionals who are used to dealing with these issues. GPs and gambling charities such as Gamblers Anonymous and GamCare provide access to resources and support.
Referral to psychological therapies and group support may be made, particularly if the problem gambling is severe. These help sufferers identify the causes of the addiction, and how to best tackle it. Group sessions are popular as all participants understand the nature of the problem and create a supporting environment in which to speak freely.
Gamblers Anonymous UK – www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk
GamCare – 0808 8020 133 www.gamcare.org.uk
National Problem Gambling Clinic – 020 7534 6699 www.cnwl.nhs.uk/gambling