By Susan Sheridan Tucker, Executive Director of Northstar Problem Gambling. As seen on Minnesota Reformer

We’re living in a perfect storm of an emerging gambling addiction problem. The COVID-19 pandemic left people trapped at home. Legal gambling is expanding at an unprecedented clip. And, technological advances are making games more attractive than ever.

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing states to legalize sports betting set off a frenzy of legislative activity. States around the country pushed through legislation to permit sports gambling and online gaming as a way to compensate for economic losses created by COVID-19, as well as to claim revenues previously collected by unregulated, offshore betting sites.

Some states set some funding aside to help problem gamblers, but not all.

At the same time, electronic access to gambling is easier than ever. And, game and app designers are furiously creating ways to absorb participants into the digital world rather than being present in the physical world. The massive amounts of data being collected from each player helps to inform the next iteration of game design.

Designers want to figure out what will keep players playing just a bit longer, so that they’ll wage another bet or continue to engage in “microtransactions” (real money spent for virtual prizes).

We also know that during stressful times, people seek escape. A pandemic is a global stressor. When isolated, people may enjoy the easy access to thousands of sites. This can begin as a mere balm for stress or anxiety, but for more than 200,000 adults and over 10,000 children in Minnesota — according to a recent study — the use of gambling or gaming sites can evolve into problem gambling or even an addiction.

All of these developments set a trap for anyone who may have a family history of addiction or mental health issues. Three quarters of gamblers have a co-morbidity, which means the existence of one or more additional conditions that often co-occur with a primary condition. As it relates to gambling, this means that if someone is being treated for depression, anxiety or other addictions, treatment providers need to ask whether a gambling addiction may be also in the mix.

Surveys conducted by the National Council on Problem Gambling in November 2018 and April 2021 show there’s been a recent increase in gambling. Among the findings:

  • The number of Americans who bet on sports grew by 30%. This represents an increase of 15.3 million bettors in 18 months.
  • Online gambling on sporting events or internet games grew even more, with an additional 25.5 million adults who now gamble this way.
  • There was an increase in problematic play among groups who were already at high risk — younger gamblers (those aged 18 to 44 years old), sports bettors and those who play daily fantasy sports.
  • Those who gambled more during the pandemic also showed more problematic play.

Minnesota will likely pass some form of sports betting legislation in the near future. (Many of our midwestern neighbors — Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan — already have). Minnesota may enjoy increased revenue, but with more gambling options comes more risk. While increased playing doesn’t directly correlate to increased addiction, it is something that needs to be monitored. Early signs are not good.

As Minnesota likely pursues a path that brings in more gambling revenue, will we ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent gamblers from developing unhealthy addictions that wreak havoc on their lives and those close to them?

The vast majority of Minnesotans enjoy gambling without suffering repercussions beyond the possible loss of “entertainment” money. When the money they plan to spend on gambling is gone, they leave the game and do something else.

For roughly 5% of Minnesota adults who are problem or at-risk of gambling addiction, gambling doesn’t play out that way. These gamblers are unable to stop because gambling provides dopamine hits to their brains. At best, they blow through predetermined spending limits; at worst, they contemplate suicide because they’ve lost so much and lied so often. What may have started out as a fun diversion has evolved into a real addiction.

Gambling addiction is now recognized as a behavioral health disorder, akin to alcohol and substance use disorder. Despite this recognition, however, the amount of money set aside to treat, prevent and research gambling addiction is far less than funding provided for alcohol and substance use addiction.

Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance will continue to advocate for strong consumer protections for all players. Any expansion in gambling must include increased funding for treatment, prevention and research.

We all have a role to play. Policymakers must assess the risks and apply best practices to their regulatory framework. Operators need to do more to minimize harm to vulnerable players. And all of us can benefit from learning more about gambling addiction, knowing how to play responsibly, and learning about available resources for the gambler and their families.