The impact of Covid-19 on gambling behavior

Covid-19 – the perfect storm

The Covid-19 pandemic has driven dramatic increases in online activity and online gambling. The pandemic has also seen an increase social isolation, financial problems and mental distress – all factors associated with problem gambling. The negative pressures of Covid may have created a perfect storm to increase addictive behaviors, like problem gambling or gambling addiction, among vulnerable people.

Those who suffer from problematic gambling or gambling disorder experience severe harms in their family situation, finances, mental health and functioning, and find they cannot stop, despite these harms. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased psychological stresses and financial pressures that are also associated with problem gambling. At the same time, global Covid quarantines have provided more opportunity for increasingly isolated and stressed individuals to gamble online, and also for gambling advertisers to target these vulnerable populations.

The increase in online gambling

The online gambling industry grew from $58.9 billion in 2019 to $66.7 billion in 2020. Online gambling has been on the rise for several years, but acceleration of the growth can almost certainly be attributed to the impact of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused major increases in overall online activity, due to people being under quarantine at home. Internet service providers reported a usage increase of 40-100% compared to pre-lockdown levels.

Typical reasons given for gambling online are the convenience and ease of accessing it, as well as to relieve boredom or escape from negative feelings or stressors – all factors especially high during the Covid pandemic.

Research has repeatedly shown that people who gamble online are associated with higher rates of problem gambling than people who gamble at a physical establishments.

Covid 19 – fewer sporting events meant less gambling?

With the cancellation of most major live global sporting events during 2020, people who normally gambled on these events changed their gambling patterns. As major leagues such as NBA and European football were cancelled, there was some speculation that overall global sports betting might decrease. This did occur, but what also happened was that smaller leagues, such as high school games or any other minor sports events that were still played physically, saw unprecedented large sums of money being wagered on them. Other changes in worldwide gambling patterns also occurred.

While land-based sports gambling decreased during the pandemic, mainly due to the lack of these live sporting events, there was an increase in online gambling. As brick-and-mortar gambling venues – such as casinos – were forced to close, gamblers who previously frequented these places often turned to:

  • Online casinos
  • Online lotteries
  • Online slots machines and roulette
  • Esports gambling
  • Online blackjack, poker
  • Gambling within video games.

A Swedish study asked 2000 individuals about their gambling habits, as well as mental health and substance use. They found that:

  • The number of people betting on ‘land-based’ sports decreased during the pandemic but many turned towards other types of gambling, including esports or virtual sport gambling.
  • Those with pre-pandemic at-risk habits or problematic levels of gambling were more likely to increase their online casino or online sports betting during Covid.
  • High-risk gamblers continued betting on youth and amateur sporting events – enormous sums of money were reportedly wagered on lower soccer leagues and youth leagues.
  • Horse betting gained popularity among sports gamblers, an activity linked to high levels of gambling addiction and debt.
  • People who did increase their gambling during Covid were significantly more likely to be younger, use substances like alcohol, spend more time at home, or experience psychological distress.

Given that online gambling poses a higher health hazard, or risk of addiction, these increases in online gambling during Covid are causes for concern. People who have never gambled online before may be exposed to more harms in trying this new format, and those who already gambled online might increase their gambling during Covid and develop into problematic gamblers.

The link between Covid-19, mental health and gambling

The link between gambling and mental health is well documented. Approximately 90% of people who gamble problematically are diagnosed with other mental health issues, most commonly OCD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance use and personality disorders. It is estimated that between five and 40% of problem gamblers who seek help have reported a history of suicide attempt. Those who gamble compulsively are more than twice as likely to have depression than the non-gambling population.

The Covid pandemic worsened some of these mental health problems:

These higher rates of depression and anxiety during Covid can put people at risk of developing problematic gambling habits. So can other pandemic stressors, including economic hardship.

Financial crises and unemployment have been previously linked to increases in gambling. After financial crises in Iceland and Greece, increases in problem gambling were reported.

Gambling advertisements during the pandemic

With more people experiencing social isolation, boredom, anxiety, depression, more time at home and more time online during the Covid pandemic, vulnerable populations have been exposed to even more advertisements by the gambling industry.

Gambling companies, like gamblers, adapted to the demands of the pandemic. Advertisements for betting sites popped up everywhere – online, on phones and on television – which made it even harder for those vulnerable to gambling problems to stay away. The gambling industry targeted people directly through text messages or emails, or through social media adverts, as well as via television and radio ads.

In the UK, in the early days of the pandemic, organizations helping problem gamblers raised concerns about the risks of Covid stressors and lockdowns increasing problematic gambling. They called on broadcast media to voluntarily stop broadcasting ads on television and radio during lockdown. However, online ads continued popping up on people’s phones and in social media accounts. This was especially problematic for those already struggling with gambling.

Gambling advertisements are a major concern for people who are in recovery from gambling addiction. Some recovering gambling addicts who had not gambled in years reported relapses, pointing the finger at spending more time at home during Covid while being ‘bombarded’ by gambling ads. The high volume of ads encouraged many people who had never gambled before to start online gambling. The strongest increases in online gambling during Covid has been for people who were already vulnerable – that is, people who already experienced problematic gambling and younger people.

In response to public health concerns of online gambling increases during Covid lockdowns, Belgium, Spain and Sweden introduced measures early on in the pandemic. The government of Spain banned most gambling advertising on television, only allowing advertisements to run between 1am and 5am. Sweden’s government implemented gambling limits for people who use online casino sites , describing the pandemic as “a dangerous cocktail of different conditions that could increase the risk of problem gambling and gambling addition”. These measures were intended to curb gambling time and money spent.

Other measures to support people at risk of gambling problems during the Covid pandemic have been introduced, such as teletherapy.

Getting support for problematic gambling

Like most other businesses with a physical location, counseling offices helping people with gambling problems closed during the pandemic. This made it harder for people struggling with compulsive gambling to find one-on-one support. However, therapists found an effective way to reach people wanting help for their problems with gambling – through teletherapy.

Teletherapy uses online tools like video calls, emails, messaging tools and audio calls to connect people with gambling problems to professional help. It has made therapy far more accessible to those who suffer from gambling disorder.

Kindbridge’s counselors offer specialized treatment via teletherapy, which can be particularly effective in helping those with an online gambling addiction to regain control in their lives.

If you, or your loved one, has been suffering harms from gambling during the pandemic, we can provide a tailored treatment plan. Book a free confidential call today.