BBC Newsbeat focused today on figures produced by GamCare, a leading UK treatment service for problem gambling. Their statistics showed that 60 percent of calls to their national helpline in the past twelve months had been from 18 -35 year olds, reporting that they had gambling problem. Their mode of gambling predominantly via smart phones and online.
As ever, one of the issues debated was whether it was the advertising or the accessibility of gambling which was causing the problem. Was the gambling industry to blame for exploitation and irresponsible behavior? My experience of working in the area of gambling addiction since 2001 has taught me that gambling is a social problem and a mental health problem. As a society, we are increasingly stressed and depressed and yet instead of encouraging engagement with others, which of course we know studies have proven to have a positive effect on mental well being, we encourage disengagement by an ever increasing emigration to a virtual world. Here, we have just enough human contact to take the edge off of our loneliness, but also just enough time out of our real world also to take the edge off of our social skills, our life skills and ability to cope with life when we are not shielded from it by the screen of our smart phone, our tablet, our computer. The harder the real world feels as a result of this, the less we wish to be in it, the more we crave the soothing, disembodying sensation of a life lived in cyber space.
Well, okay, but what has this got to do with gambling, you are maybe asking? From what I have been shown in my practice, huge amounts, I answer. The mistake that is so often made when we try to understand the complexities of gambling addiction is to think that it’s all about trying to win money. Often obsession with winning money is not the trigger but the consequence of the addiction. Indeed when massive losses have been made, every addicted gambler I have met will chase their losses because by then finances are likely to be devastated. Initially however, what is being sought from the experience of gambling online is a soothing, self medicating experience. Just for that time, the gambler is buying themselves complete absorption in the activity. Nothing else exists as they press those buttons, money is just numbers, thoughts from the stressful, anxiety provoking world of 2013 are blocked out. Feelings that go with them just for that time are numbed into oblivion by the focus on gambling.
Those of us in the age group 18-35 have grown with easy access to the brave new online world.It truly can be exciting and wonderful and has so much to offer. Spend too much time there, however, and there is so much to lose. Not just in financial terms, but in time, the ability to relate, to problem solve, to tolerate emotional discomfort. Paying to gamble is a small leap from gaming on the Xbox, from playing ‘Candy Crush’ on the smart phone, from obsessively checking Facebook.
I saw a mother and two year old son in the predictably long post office queue a few weeks ago. The little boy was bored, his mother was engaged in her mobile phone conversation. The boy became distressed and when he began to scream hysterically, his mother finally noticed him and handed him her smart phone, encouraging him to play a game on it. The boy instantly was soothed. I was chilled. Money aside, that is how most people I meet would describe their smart phone or online gambling;a self soothing strategy. We need to look at the wider world of society, if we are to understand why so many young people would choose to narrow down their world, and ultimately every level of their lives, by gambling online.