The challenge in identifying problematic online gambling
The challenge in identifying problematic online gambling

While technology can help spot those who exhibit signs of problem gambling, finding just what to measure and interpreting that data is tricky.

As more states legalize online gambling and sports betting and see revenues explode, they are turning to technology to monitor signs of addiction among users.

New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement announced in February that it would work with online wagering companies to identify and help problem gamblers using information collected by operators about gambling habits. DGE said the first-of-its-kind initiative would require platform operators to analyze player data to determine whether those players show signs of behavior associated with problem gambling.

At the time, officials involved in the program said using technology to identify and help problem gamblers is the logical next step in helping addicts. In a statement, DGE Director David Rebuck said the data collected and analyzed by the agency and experts employed by gambling platforms would help officials “see the early warning signs and reach at-risk patrons before they find themselves in a financial catastrophe.”

A DGE spokesperson declined to comment further, noting that it is still too early in the initiative to determine its effectiveness.

While using data to analyze who is at risk of being a problem gambler holds promise, programs such as DGE’s still have many details to work out. Establishing metrics to identify problematic online gambling remains a challenge, for example, especially as efforts are driven at the state level and lack federal support or funding.

DGE said its responsible gaming initiative set specific parameters and behaviors for operators to watch for, including players whose gambling time increases from week to week, bettors who repeatedly self-impose cool-off periods from gaming, those who wager until they have less than one dollar in their accounts and players who regularly visit the self-exclusion page on the operator’s website without ultimately excluding themselves.

But measuring whether someone is addicted to gambling via app can be challenging, warned Alan Feldman, a Distinguished Fellow in Responsible Gaming at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ International Gaming Institute. For example, he said, someone may log into an app for 15 minutes each day to check betting lines but not be an addict, but that behavior may prompt a red flag for operators anyway.

And while gambling addiction is now regarded by experts as a mental health condition, Feldman said it can also present as a comorbidity. Gambling addicts may also be prone to alcohol or substance abuse, he said, which are not tracked by apps or the authorities.

It may be effective to track the trajectory of someone’s wagering habits, but even that could be problematic, Feldman said. A player may start wagering $10, but then within a few weeks might be betting $1,000 or more, which could indicate the start of worrying behavior. But that escalation may also be an indication that the player was learning the ropes before going bigger.

“Technology at this moment is clearly a beacon of hope for dealing with this, but questions remain,” Feldman said. “What do we need to measure? When do we need to measure it? How do we need to measure it? None of those things have been clearly answered.”

A related issue is how users should be notified if they exhibit signs of problem gambling and pointed to resources that can help. Whether a text message or email is more effective than a phone call is still up for debate, Feldman said, and while having the state notify users is “very problematic,” putting that responsibility on gambling operators would also be a challenge but may be the best way forward. 

Betting apps could enable geofencing, thus preventing access from people from states where sports betting is illegal from online gambling. 

The state could give operators parameters within which they must meet specific expectations. ”Then let them figure it out,” Feldman said. “They know their customers; these are highly effective marketing machines, and more to the point, highly effective customer service machines. No state does that.”

Currently, many states give customers the option to add themselves to self-exclusion lists, preventing them from accessing casino properties, while some states have involuntary exclusion lists too, in a bid to protect the integrity of gaming in their state. Feldman said enforcement of those lists is “all over the map” and inconsistent across states. Greater consistency and data sharing of those lists would benefit customers, especially those who travel across state lines to gamble.

The betting industry also appears concerned about responsible gaming for online gamblers. Last year, sportsbook PointsBet and the National Council on Problem Gambling announced a research initiative to understand how industry, government and other representatives would respond to various scenarios where online customers show potentially problematic gambling behaviors.

In a statement at the time, Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said that while online gambling operators are required to provide various tools to promote responsible gaming, those tools should be “regularly reviewed and evaluated by stakeholders to ensure they are adequately serving customers.”

A PointsBet spokesperson did not respond to requests for further comment on the contents of the report.

Feldman said while there are “signs of promise” in the use of technology to curb addiction, it is too early to say for certain what methods are most effective. He said while some states and vendors may be “claiming victory,” more work lies ahead to figure out what works, as opposed to “what's just going to make us feel good.”

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