By Emily Reynolds
Gambling is big business in the UK. According to NHS Digital, 57% of men and 54% of women said they gambled in 2018, while the Gambling Commission states that online gambling grew by 8.1% from 2019 to 2020.
Gambling changed significantly during the pandemic: while consumers could still buy scratch cards and lottery tickets in supermarkets and without a license, betting shops were closed and sports games canceled, shifting much activity entirely to the internet. And, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Bristol, although the UK public gambled less overall during the lockdown, rates of among normal gamblers were on-line gambling has increased dramatically.
The data came from participants in a longitudinal study conducted since the 1990s who were sent additional questionnaires during the 2020 lockdown. Gambling questions focused on the previous month’s activity, with participants asking if and how often they had participated in the national lottery, scratch cards, online gambling or betting, and other forms of gambling. The questionnaires also focused on the mental health, financial security and employment of the participants.
Overall, the frequency of gambling decreased during the lockdown – not surprising when you consider that many personal gambling opportunities were taboo. This applied to both regular players (who played once a week or more before the pandemic) and casual players (who played less than weekly). However, the proportion of people participating in online gambling activities such as poker, bingo, and casino games has increased six-fold among regular gamblers and doubled among casual gamblers.
Neither depression nor anxiety were associated with gaming frequency. However, alcohol consumption was: people who drank a lot – more than six units more than once a week – gambled more weekly than no gambling at all. Finances were also relevant – people who had financial problems prior to the COVID-19 outbreak were more likely to gamble during the lockdown.
It’s no great surprise that online gambling has increased during the pandemic: there were fewer opportunities to gamble outside of the home, and as a recreational activity, gambling may have alleviated the boredom of lockdown. However, the team feared that online gambling could pose a greater threat to some groups than its offline counterpart, with young people in particular being prone to being “drawn” into addictive online gambling. The rise of eSports and the increasingly popular combination of gaming and gambling could be a particular topic here – overall, the Gambling Commission found that the largest increase was seen during the lockdown in betting on eSports. An increase in homeworking could also mean that more people who are at home alone start gambling.
The strong link between binge drinking and gambling is also worrying, lead author Alan Emond said, as both are addictive behaviors that can have serious health and social consequences. Many of those who reported gambling had financial difficulties even before COVID-19, another concerns the study’s finding – gambling to get out of difficult financial situations could simply make the problem worse and people into even more debt. The team also notes that the study may have underestimated the extent of gambling, with 70% of participants being women and men more likely to be regular gamblers.
Not all gambling behavior will be problematic: many people like to buy one or two scratch cards or take part in the lottery every week without developing a serious problem. However, the links with both alcohol use and financial uncertainty point to the darker side of gambling – and could suggest that digital intervention or restrictions on gambling sites may be required to reach people struggling with gambling at home.
If you are concerned about your gambling, GamCare provides free information, assistance and advice to problem gamblers in the UK. It operates the National Gambling Helpline (0808 8020 133) and offers personal advice.
– Young adult gambling in the UK during COVID-19 lockdown
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles