When casinos and bingo halls were closed as part of the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the gambling environment in Ontario changed. While this lack of availability may prevent some people from gambling during this time, others may choose to gamble online where they have access to lottery, casino games (e.g., slots, blackjack, poker, and roulette), sports betting, and more.
Early evidence suggests that an increase in online entertainment, including online gambling, has occurred since implementation of wide-ranging public health directives to stay at home and socially distance during the COVID-19 pandemic (King et al., 2020; van Schalkwyk et al., 2020). It is important to consider the potential implications of this increase.
According to some studies, online gambling can contribute to the development or worsening of gambling problems (Gainsbury, 2015). Some have suggested that the potential for addiction is even higher with online gambling than with land-based gambling (Chóliz, 2016; Yazdi & Katzian, 2017). People who gamble exclusively online are significantly more likely to report harm to their well-being, finances and relationships due to their gambling (Papineau et al., 2018). They are also more likely to report sleep problems and other problems related to their physical and mental health (Papineau et al., 2018). In addition, people who gamble online are significantly less likely to seek help when compared to people who engage in land-based gambling (Gainsbury, 2015).
What does the evidence say?
Online gambling features that may impact problem severity
Online gambling has some features that increase the likelihood of developing a gambling problem or make an existing gambling problem worse. These features include (Gainsbury, 2015):
- constant availability
- ease of access
- the ability to play for long periods without interruption
- the ability to play in isolation
- use of credit card and digital payments that make it easy to spend money
- highly interactive and immersive environments that may cause players to lose track of time and money.
It has been argued that the isolated nature of online gambling makes it more difficult to identify risky behaviours such as playing under the influence of alcohol or other drugs (Gainsbury, 2012). This can also place people at increased risk and can make it easier to conceal a gambling problem from others.
Risk factors involved in problem online gambling
Research on online gambling is still relatively new, although there are reviews of a wide range of studies related problem online gambling risk factors (Chagas & Gomes, 2017; Scholes-Balog & Hemphill, 2012; Williams & Wood, 2007).
Demographic factors related to problem online gambling include being male and of younger age. Studies have found problem online gambling to be associated with higher household debt, higher and lower socioeconomic status, and higher and lower levels of education. Problem online gambling is also associated with poor mental health outcomes as well as alcohol and other substance use.
Research further suggests that those who experience problem online gambling report higher stress, lower self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Although more research is needed, physical health conditions, such as chronic illness and disability, may increase the likelihood of problem online gambling.
How the covid-19 pandemic may increase risk
The COVID-19 pandemic is having major impacts on social and economic functioning across the world. While online gambling may be a coping strategy for some or increase opportunities to virtually socialize during these challenging times, the risk factors for problem online gambling are likely heightened. In addition to the anxiety-inducing climate and media associated with the pandemic,
self-isolation and social distancing practices can increase stress, depression, boredom, and other negative affective states (Brooks et al., 2020). People experiencing such feelings may increasingly turn to online gambling as a way to cope.
How do I put the evidence into practice?
Recognize that online gambling may be an issue for your clients and ask them about it. Use a brief screening tool such as a gambling quiz. Provide a brief intervention (see SBIRT course under resources below to learn how to do a brief intervention) or make a referral to treatment if needed.
You can also educate players about ways they can reduce risk. Most licensed gambling sites are required to provide consumer protection tools that include deposit limits and time-outs (Gainsbury et al., 2020). PlayOLG, which is the only online casino regulated by the Province of Ontario, requires players to set a weekly deposit limit and gives them the option to set a weekly loss limit, a limit on lottery spending, and session time limits.
If your client is concerned about their gambling, you can suggest that they:
- complete a gambling quiz that provides feedback on their level of risk
- set a break of one day to three months
- request self-exclusion which means they would be banned from using the site.
Self-exclusion is a voluntary program that an individual can use when they believe it is in their best interests to take a break from gambling. Individuals can register for self-exclusion with land-based gambling venues as well as online gambling platforms.
SBIRT – This self-directed online course for addiction and mental health professionals provides participants with a basic understanding of screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment for problem gambling.
Connex Ontario – This helpline provides information and referral to treatment for people dealing with problems related to substance use, mental illness or gambling.
Brooks, S.K., Webster, R.K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N. & Rubin, G.J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: Rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395 (10227), 912–920.
Chagas, B.T. & Gomes, J.F.S. (2017). Internet gambling: A critical review of behavioural tracking research. Journal of Gambling Issues, 36, 1-27.
Chóliz, M. (2016). The challenge of online gambling: The effect of legalization on the increase in online gambling addiction. Journal of Gambling Studies, 32 (2), 749–756.
Gainsbury, S. (2012). Internet gambling and pathological gambling. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook on Pathological Gambling. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Gainsbury, S.M. (2015). Online gambling addiction: The relationship between internet gambling and disordered gambling. Current Addiction Reports, 2 (2), 185–193.
Gainsbury, S.M., Angus, D.J., Procter, L. & Blaszczynski, A. (2020). Use of consumer protection tools on Internet gambling sites: Customer perceptions, motivators, and barriers to use. Journal of Gambling Studies, 36 (1), 259–276.
King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Billieux, J. & Potenza, M.N. (2020). Problematic online gaming and the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 29 (9), 184–186. Available: https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.2020.00016. Accessed February 12, 2021.
Papineau, E., Lacroix, G., Sévigny, S., Biron, J.F., Corneau-Tremblay, N. & Lemétayer, F. (2018). Assessing the differential impacts of online, mixed, and offline gambling. International Gambling Studies, 18 (1), 69–91.
Scholes-Balog, K.E. & Hemphill, S.A. (2012). Relationships between online gambling, mental health, and substance use: A review. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (12), 688–692.
van Schalkwyk, M.C.I., Cheetham, D., Reeves, A. & Petticrew, M. (2020). Covid-19: We must take urgent action to avoid an increase in problem gambling and gambling related harms. The BMJ Opinion. Available: http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/04/06/-covid-19-we-must-take-urgent-action-to-avoid-an-increase-in-problem-gambling-and-gambling-related-harms/. Accessed May 25, 2020.
Williams, R.J. & Wood, R.T. (2007). Internet gambling: A comprehensive review and synthesis of the literature [Report]. The Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, Guelph, Ontario.
Yazdi, K. & Katzian, C. (2017). Addictive potential of online-gambling: A prevalence study from Austria. Psychiatria Danubina, 29 (3), 367–378.