TW: Suicide, addiction, depression  

As we remain locked up, another scourge is being let loose; welcome to the world of online casinos and virtual sports gambling. We, and our juniors, are being primed for the normalisation of gambling in our lives. From the earliest point we are shown that it can pay off to risk, real life or virtual, money in games (markets exist for the trading of real to virtual currency and vice versa): GTA V introduced an online casino in 2019, loot boxes in Fortnite, packs in FIFA. All based on fixed odd outcomes as a reward for staking funds, whilst youngsters form positive associations with gambling being presented in an enticing gamified manner.

During lockdown, media outlets are being pumped full of malignant advertising by the bookies. Novel research by Stirling University, has shown that 96% of people aged 11-24 have been exposed to gambling ads in the past month, and could be more likely to gamble as a result. Targeted ads are being pushed onto the already, YouGov estimated, up to 1.4 million problem gamblers. Chief executive of the Gambling Commission, the gambling regulator, Neil McArthur, told the House of Commons Public Accounts committee that around 15% of punters have shown an increase in gambling time since the dawn of lockdown, becoming 60% in the “most engaged” gamblers, who also happen to be the most vulnerable to developing an addiction. Personally, not so close friends of mine have staked thousands of pounds in the space of a few months, I fear greatly for their health and the state of their dwindling student bank accounts.

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Often dependency stems from mental health issues, whether that be trauma, grieving, depression, etc – these problems are on the rise as a result of this pandemic and national lockdown. We’re sitting on a ticking timebomb, and already fragile families and lives are going to be shredded up, whether actions are taken to curb this or not.

The repercussions of a gambling addiction are utterly crippling. As in the case of Justyn Rees-Larcombe it ripped his life apart in every aspect. After the trauma of his son’s diagnosis with a rare health condition he placed a starter deal £5 free bet, that’s all it took to hook him for 3 years in secrecy from his wife and kids, falling into severe debt. He lost his family, his job (for staking with company credit cards), and over £750,000 after a fruitful career in the military and city. He has spoken of the ability to wager £100 in 20 seconds on virtual roulettes, that equates to a potential £18,000 staked each hour, expressing a will for this to be reduced to £2 as it is on fixed odds betting terminals in betting shops.

Many addicts go on to kill themselves out of total despair; research commissioned by a leading UK gambling charity, GambleAware, found that 1 in 5 problem gamblers experience suicidal thoughts, five times higher than the general population. Some gambling sites, in fact, directly spur these problem gamblers on, to throw away their livelihoods, and do not intervene despite the clear and apparent misery they are wreaking.

Are problem gamblers not just inherently selfish and fallible? No. Risk versus reward scenarios, regardless of profit or loss, trigger an evolutionary dopamine rush in the brain, this explains the addictive nature of gambling. The ‘happy’ chemical fills the void left by the grief of whatever grim infliction was left on the unfortunate addict; with each flutter the brain is conditioned to need a greater stimulus to induce the release of dopamine, leading to even more reckless, brazen betting. This is a serious public health problem and should be treated as such. This is not something to take lightly. Gambling becoming a day-to-day part of our lives is dangerous and it’s on the rise, becoming yet more accessible online.

The current ‘protections’ require addicts, or those with gambling difficulties, to be proactive in ‘self-excluding’ from gambling shops and sites. These measures completely miss the mark; how can an addict both be expected to accept their problem and follow through in excluding themselves, whilst simultaneously being bombarded with advertisements and direct coercion?

Bookmakers are plunging their toxic fangs straight through our fingers with each and every flashy fanatical advertisement we see on social media. Should we continue to allow betting companies to spin their sticky web across our virtual landscape, or do you reckon they’re doing a stellar job of self-regulating? I think the latter myself, bloody stellar…

The first step in fixing any problem is talking. Need help, or know someone who does? Visit: https://www.begambleaware.org/