Online Gambling in Unprecedented Times: Risks and Safer Gambling Strategies During COVID-19

The Responsible Gambling Council’s Centre for the Advancement of Best Practices (CABP) has authored a report that examines the risk factors and changes surrounding online gambling during COVID-19, and recommends measures to take to address these factors.

The article, written by CABP director Janine Robinson and Senior Researcher Dr. Sasha Stark, concluded that “now is the time to improve safer gambling initiatives — expand their scope and reach, try innovative approaches, and increase their visibility.”

A new landscape

The report begins by noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the gaming industry in the long-term, particularly when it comes to iGaming. It adds that many jurisdictions such as several U.S. states are fast-tracking or beginning plans to legalize online gambling to offset the financial repercussions of the pandemic.

Online gambling has been the focus of much research and safer gambling initiatives for some time because of its high-speed and wide-ranging nature and the enhances privacy concerns. The report highlights numeorus other risk factors including depression, anxiety, and psychological distress; substance abuse and gambling while intoxicated; loneliness; financial difficulties and stress; and gambling to escape or to relieve boredom. The authors say it is “unprecedented” that all of these risk factors are happening together on a global scale. “The impacts will likely be unparalleled.”

Online growth

The report notes it is expected that the global online gambling market will grow from $58.9 billion to $66.7 billion from 2019 to 2020. It also found that reductions in gambling caused by land-based closures and the relative lack of onlien options in Ontario are translating into reductions in harm, with calls to helplines decreasing sharply by roughly 50 per cent in Ontario. There are concerns that trend will reverse as casinos begin to reopen and iGaming expansion is pursued.

Worldwide, 32 per cent of players have actively looked for new types of betting that continue to be available since the start of the pandemic. 26 per cent of Canadian gamblers reported increased gambling since the start of the pandemic.

That increased uptake of online gambling has called into question whether pre-existing player protection and responsible gambling measures are sufficient, suggests the report. “The player has changed and the risks have changed,” write the authors. “To prevent benefiting from high-risk play and provide a heightened duty of care to players, operators need to bolster safer gambling resources and programs under these unparalleled circumstances to minimize the impact of these changes in risk by providing more player information, resources, interaction, and support… This is an opportunity for gambling operators to rise to the challenges posed by a unique, difficult, and evolving situation by identifying new and augmented solutions and approaches for safer play.”

Recommended measures

The authors recommend implementing several measures to increase player protections, including:

  • Operators and regulators avoiding adding games and offering features that pose a high level of risk for players, including games that have a high speed of play and features such as autoplay, reverse withdrawals, and bonuses.
  • Operators engaging in stricter monitoring of player behaviours during this time and dedicating more resources to this task, as well as increasing the level and quality of customer service being provided to players.
  • Operators re-examining existing markers of risk used in player monitoring accordingly and reviewing new thresholds, as well as assessing whether new and COVID-19-specific markers are required.
  • Increasing and tailoring communication with all players, including interacting with players early and often, providing information and support that considers the possible impacts of COVID-19 on players and their behaviours, and interacting with players who are showing increases in play behaviour such as time and spend. Communications should focus on promoting informed decision-making and this information should be made highly visible, heavily promoted, and easy to access and understand.
  • Educating players on how COVID-19 restrictions can impact gambling behaviours and how to minimize risk. For examine, players should be reminded not to play to escape negative feelings or to make money, and to reconsider financial limits in light of impacts on their employment or income.
  • Experimenting with new ways to incentivize safer gambling behaviours and the use of associated tools, such as by attaching rewards to these tools and measures.
  • Ensuring marketing and advertising does not imply that gambling can alleviate any negative impacts of social distancing or economic recession, such as stress or financial concerns, and instead focusing on safer gambling messages.
  • Improving, tailoring, and reinforcing staff training and providing staff with information for navigating these difficult times and supporting players in new circumstances. Developing new training for all staff that focuses on COVID-19 impacts on players and considerations for player interactions or that outlines new safer gambling programs.

The report adds that cuts to safer gambling should be avoided to mitigate a surge of player harm and self-exclusions, and that operators should contribute to destigmatizing safe gambling by moving upstream — focusing on all players and not just framing safer gambling as a response to problem gambling. It stresses that marketing, player communications, and staff training should convey information and resources for the entire spectrum of players, from low to high risk.

“Regulators should focus upstream by aligning their goals with broader public health concerns and improvements, and
widening the focus to include the financial sector and promoting healthy online activities…” concludes the report. “Operators must be proactive in identifying new ways to support customers during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. They should use all of the resources and data at their disposal to identify opportunities for and develop additional supports.”

More information on these recommendations, including case studies, can be found in the full report.

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