'I lost £25,000': Problem gambling soars in lockdown as fears mount for young Scots and children at risk

'I lost £25,000': Problem gambling soars in lockdown as fears mount for young Scots and children at risk

The number of Scots seeking help with problem gambling after lockdown has soared as experts voice deepening concerns.

Calls to Gamstop, a free service helping people restrict their online gambling, has climbed by 23% on pre-lockdown figures.

An estimated 207,000 Scots are addicted to gambling or at risk of developing an addiction, with specialists voicing particular concern about children and young people as one youth worker reveals a 10-year-old had recently been helped with gambling issues.

Fiona Palmer, chief executive of Gamstop, said: “Registrations to Gamstop from across the UK increased significantly throughout the pandemic, although it is difficult to gauge whether this is linked entirely to lockdown.

“We’ve seen a spike in registrations, and it is reassuring to know that those signing up are taking that all-important first step towards protecting themselves from gambling-related harm.”

A survey by charity umbrella group the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland into young people and gambling in Scotland, found 24% of young people had gambled in the previous 12 months. Of those who had gambled, 8% said they did so every day.

The survey also explored the link between computer gaming and gambling, an area of growing concern. It found 60% of respondents had at some point opened a “loot box” – in-game purchases whereby the player buys, with real money, random virtual enhancements for their game character. Experts say that this establishes in children a link between paying money and the rush of an unknown outcome.

The Alliance’s Georgina Charlton said: “We hear from parents with concerns for their children. We hear a lot of concern about what is called the gamblification of gaming – with things like loot boxes in games.”

She said gambling appeared to have increased in lockdown: “People generally seems to have increased their gambling habits whether that is through improved access to gambling through smartphones or because of boredom during lockdown or other factors.”

The survey was carried out by Scotland’s national youthwork organisation Fast Forward, and Allie Cherry-Byrnes of Fast Forward said: “Young people are more exposed to gambling and gambling advertising than ever.

“This leaves children and vulnerable adults at an increased risk of experiencing a range of gambling harms that may impact them financially, psychologically and physically for years to come.

“As the environment for gambling continues to change, so must the preventative measures and safeguards we put in place to protect those most at risk.”

Conor Maxwell, youth, family and community learning team leader at South Lanarkshire Council, confirmed his team was seeing younger problem gamblers: “The youngest person we worked with was 10-years-old.

“One kid got scratchcards off their grandad. That was at primary six. It has been totally normalised. It starts to take its toll years later when they want to win higher and higher amounts. There were two lads that we dealt with whose behaviour changed. They were staying up all night, betting on the lower Argentinian football leagues. They were just 15.”

Geraldine Bedel of Parent Zone, a group which campaigns to keep children safe online, also pointed to the growing overlap between gaming and gambling.

She said: “Loot boxes borrow techniques from gambling to keep children playing and paying – and we know that heavy loot box use is linked to problem gambling. This is normalising gambling for children.”

A study by Stirling University showed around one in six regular gamblers started during lockdown. Professor Kate Hunt, of Stirling University’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, said: “In lockdown, a minority continued to bet as some horse races and sports were still available in other countries but some people started gambling on new types of activity – including the lottery and virtual online sports – they had not previously engaged in.”

Experts fear the consequences of gambling addiction could not be more grave and Danielle Rowley, of Samaritans Scotland said: “There is a clear link between gambling and suicide and there is much more that needs to be done to reduce the devastating impact that gambling harms can have, not just on the individual but their family and loved ones, too.

“The gambling industry must take more responsibility and we expect to see gambling treated as a public health issue by the government. We want to see new measures that are focused on preventing harm, such as slowing the speed of play on some games and limiting unaffordable losses.

“In addition, a mandatory levy on the industry should be introduced to pay for projects to reduce gambling harms and to ensure the regulator is properly funded.”

Reformed gambling addict Martin Paterson now campaigns on the issue and said: “My heart goes out to kids being bombarded with this stuff. These loot boxes are similar to the fix of gambling. They are designed to give that ‘near miss’ addiction. There needs to be tighter regulation.”

The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), the lobbying group that represents bookmakers, said their members had a strict zero-tolerance approach to betting by children, with most of this being outwith its control through scratchcards, playing cards and fruit machines.

It said: “In 2019, BGC members introduced the whistle-to-whistle ban on TV betting commercials during live sport before the 9pm watershed, which led to the number of such ads being seen by children at that time falling by 97%.

“In 2021, we introduced new rules aimed at ensuring children cannot view gambling ads on football clubs’ official social media accounts. Our members also introduced new age-gating rules on advertising on social platforms, restricting the ads to those aged 25 and over for most sites.

“The Betting and Gaming Council’s largest members are also determined to tackle the minority that suffer from problem gambling, by pledging an additional £100m of funding between 2019 and 2023 for research, education and treatment services to be administered by the independent charity GambleAware.

“We are encouraged by the latest figures from the Gambling Commission that showed the rate of problem gambling in the UK was 0.2%.”

The national gambling helpline is available 24/7 on 0808 8020 133

Professor:Video game loot boxes offer same hit as betting

The rise of so-called loot boxes in video games has prompted calls for tighter regulation to protect young gamers.

Loot boxes appear as chests, crates or card packs with players using real money to acquire items such as weapons, special abilities or “skins” that alter a character’s appearance.

However, the result of the transaction is often uncertain and psychologist Dr Aaron Drummond of Massey University, New Zealand, says the experience is akin to gambling.

The world-leading expert said: “In some specific areas of gaming, we are seeing the implementation of specific gambling-like features. One of the areas of research I’m undertaking at the moment is around the similarity between loot boxes in video games and conventional forms of gambling.

“These are often bought for real world money and provide players with a random reward. Our initial examination of the features of these loot boxes suggests that many of them meet the psychological criteria to be considered a form of gambling.

“Exposure to gambling-like mechanisms might encourage transition into real world gambling. In addition, there is a concern is that people who are vulnerable to the mechanism, such as players who have problem gambling symptoms, appear to spend more on the mechanism than people without problem gambling symptoms.

“This is a finding that has been replicated many times around the world. Our research also suggests the association between problem gambling symptoms and loot box spending was stronger for those gamers who reported being isolated due to the pandemic.

“Ultimately, it appears there is a strong case to be made for regulatory action. A good first step is to increase the amount of information that is available to consumers about the issue.

“One way to do this is to provide appropriate classification or warning labels about the presence of loot boxes in video games to allow consumers to make informed choices for themselves and their children.

“There is also a clear need to continue to consider whether additional age restrictions or other consumer protections might be necessary to protect young vulnerable consumers.”

Loot boxes are common in firstperson shooter games such as Star Wars Battlefront II and others. They can also be found in sports games, such as Fifa, Madden and others. Epic Games’s hugely successful game Fortnite changed the way it uses loot boxes in-game in 2019, allowing players to see the contents before purchase.

In Fifa, the world’s bestselling sports video game, you can reportedly spend £500 in a day on packs that give gamers the chance to unlock star footballers. The makers, Electronic Arts said: “In Fifa, spending is always optional and most players choose not to spend at all. We agree with the many regulators, including in the UK, who have concluded that loot boxes are not gambling. We will continue to listen to our community, take action in the service of our players and invest back in the game to make it better and more fun for everyone.”

‘I started to wonder if I should be here anymore but having a baby changed everything’

It started with just one scratch card. Or two. Louise McLaren was 16 and would buy them every day but she ended up losing more than £25,000 on gambling.

Mum-of-two Louise, 27, said: “Things got really bad. I was severely depressed with what was happening to me. It got to the point where I started to wonder if I should be here anymore. Then when I had my first child that gave me the focus to do something about the gambling that was taking over my life.”

After she saw a close friend win a large sum of money, she signed up for online gambling.

What started out as just putting a few weekend accumulators on the football quickly turned into a habit formed around online slots. By 2018, she realised she was suffering from a full-blown addiction. She would spend six hours a day on slots on her phone.

She said: “Gambling is everywhere. It is hard to get away from. There is this image that it’s only old men in the bookies.

“But it’s not like that now. I know of a lot of young women who are gambling. It is all over social media – the advertising, the offers.”

At the peak of her addiction, she would hide her bank statements from her partner for fear he would discover the truth.

Two years ago, McLaren, from Lanark, signed up for Gamstop, a free service which helps people control online gambling by stopping their use of websites and apps run by companies licensed in Britain.

Former barista Louise said: “I signed up for Gamstop and just stopped gambling. It felt horrible, leaving me feeling anxious and nervous.

“I have given up smoking and it felt the same way. I felt that I just had to find something else to do. Exercise was a great help.

“I now do a lot of walking and play games on my phone and do word searches to keep my mind occupied. I really regret it and I never want to go through that again. I will do everything I can to steer my kids away from gambling when they are a bit older.

“It is important that anyone who is struggling does not keep it quiet, they need to be confident to speak out and get the help you need before it is too late.

“There is still so much stigma around the issue and some people don’t take it seriously but the help is out there.”

Scots are carrying a potentially life-ruining casino in their pocket, according to an industry expert.

Business journalist Rob Davies – who has covered the gambling industry for six years – said gambling had saturated society, with betting companies increasingly sophisticated in parting punters from their money.

The rise of smartphones, social media, the pandemic and societal changes have triggered an explosion in gambling addiction, Davies said.

The Guardian journalist and author of Jackpot: How Gambling Conquered Britain, said: “The gambling act gets written in 2005 then gets enacted in 2007 and between those two dates the smartphone is invented. At that point, everyone has essentially got a casino in their pocket with 24/7 access to the casino and it becomes open to everybody really.

“Then parallel to that you’ve got the explosion in the number of football games that are broadcast. In the early 2000s, it was only two or three games a week. Now, it’s almost all of them, so the gambling companies now have the opportunity to harness the national game.”

He said that in just a few years, a business historically rooted in the racetrack and the casino table had transformed into something much bigger and more pervasive. He said:

“It had become a relentless automaton programmed to separate punters from their money by any means, at any cost. Gambling companies inveigled their way into our lives, addressing us in both our living rooms and our public spaces, becoming household names in the process. They did so despite the fact that many of their products present unusually pernicious dangers, most of which have, until very recently, flown under the radar of public consciousness.”

Football betting has played a huge part in normalising gambling and providing more opportunities to place bets. Davies said: “You now have social media added to the cocktail with a massive growth in football betting. That’s one of the fastest growing areas of gambling and has overtaken horseracing now. Social media is proportionately used more often by young people.

“The gambling firms are adept at exploiting that. They use social media a lot, they tap into fan culture, podcasts and things like that. One development that played into all of that was the invention of in-play betting – so you can bet on who will get the next corner or the number of throw-ins and things like that.”

Once gambling had saturated target demographic areas – such as football fans – they began seeking out new customers – such as young women.

He said: “They are thinking – well, how do we grow this market? The one area where they didn’t really have much impact was with women. Women proportionately are less attracted to sports betting and more to casino-type products. You used to have the old-fashioned idea of going down the bingo but you can now do that on your phone.

“And that’s, you know, cross-sold with casino products and so on and they will dress them up in kind of female friendly clothing in pink colours or with subject matters that they feel are more appealing to women.

“We’ve seen an increasing proportion of women receiving treatment for gambling problems. They used to be really a minority but they’re very sadly catching up.”

Unlike drug or alcohol addiction which can be obvious to friends and family, a person’s deepening gambling addiction can be hidden, according to Davies. He said: “If you’re addicted to gambling then unless you’re a multi-billionaire, it almost always leads to financial ruin.

“People can’t really see what is happening to you. Unlike alcohol and narcotics, it’s not written all over your face. So you could be on the sofa with your partner right next to you and you’ve just blown your mortgage but they are totally unaware.”

Gambling among children was a growing issue. He said: “There is research that has shown a high correlation between loot boxes in games and people with gambling addiction. Some young people are more susceptible and attracted to loot boxes because they have these gambling style features.

“It’s an interesting kind of a regulatory loophole because the regulator in Great Britain can’t actually do anything about loot boxes because they don’t technically count as gambling. The reason they don’t count as gambling is because they are not what’s known as ‘money’s worth’, you can’t cash out items for money. You’re not getting an item that you can go and then sell in the real world, even though in every other respect the mechanics very much like gambling.

“It is an outdated concept. What do 15-year-olds consider to have value? It doesn’t have to be cash. It may be something they can exchange in a marketplace online with other gamers.”

Betting companies continue to employ an arsenal of clever tricks to tempt punters into spending more money. He said: “One of the products that has emerged in recent years is boosted odds where the bookmaker gives you much longer odds than you would usually get, say 15–1 that a good team such as Chelsea will beat a weaker side like Fulham. Sometimes this will be on offer to new customers only, as a means of driving new account sign-ups.”

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