Gambling has found its way into people's homes through the Internet. If you like to browse or shop online, are you at a greater risk for problem gambling? Does gambling online increase your chances of becoming a problem gambler?
Kahlil S. Philander, director of research at the UNLV International Gaming Institute and professor of hotel administration, and Terri-Lynn MacKay, educational and clinical studies professor, sought to answer these questions. Their study, "Online Gambling Participation and Problem Gambling Severity: Is There a Causal Relationship?," was published in the March issue of International Gambling Studies. In August the study was cited in The WAGER (The Worldwide Addiction Gambling Report), published by the Cambridge Health Alliance, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
Gambling online has grown to a $32 billion industry worldwide. However, some countries have been slow to adopt it as a legal form of gambling -- often citing concerns that the Internet is a causal factor for players turning into problem gamblers. Some studies have connected an increase in online gaming to an increased risk of problem gambling. However, their methodologies have been questioned, specifically the omission of variables in study models that may lead to bias. According to Philander, the bias in past studies appeared to show that when online gambling goes up, problem gambling goes up, too.
Philander and MacKay used a different modeling technique called "two-stage least squares" to better isolate the relationship between the two variables of online gambling participation and problem gambling severity. They reviewed data from two studies:
2010 British Gambling Prevalence Study of 7,756 adults from England, Scotland, and Wales that measured respondents' participation in gambling, estimated their prevalence of problem gambling, and explored their socio-demographic factors.
2006 survey of an online research panel of 3,343 respondents from Ontario, Canada, that measured participants' online and offline gambling behavior, demographics, online leisure activities (shopping and browsing), and problem gambling severity.
The researchers used an instrumental variables model approach, which allowed them to better assess the relationship between online gambling participation and gambling-related problems. They determined the statistical appropriateness of two instrumental variables -- shopping online and browsing the Internet -- and then used these instrumental variables to estimate individuals' likelihood of online gambling and to predict the likelihood of gambling-related problems.
"The key finding is that participation in online gambling is not found to increase problem gambling rates observed in the general population. This was a remarkable finding, since many prior studies found strong correlation between these two variables, which people assumed was a cause-and-effect relationship," Philander said.
Specifically, the study showed:
- No association between the variables of shopping online and browsing the Internet and the risk levels for problem gambling.
- Those who shopped online and those who browsed on the Internet were more likely to use online gambling products.
- Online shopping, Internet browsing, and a number of gambling activities were predictors of online gambling participation -- but not of problem gambling.
"This is not to say that some people don't have problematic issues with online gambling, but when we look at the population as a whole, we don't observe a causal effect of online gambling participation on problem gambling prevalence," he added.
According to the report, while the study provided a consistent estimate of the relationship between online gambling participation and problem gambling severity, and provides plausible explanations for this relationship, a full explanation of the causal mechanism still is needed. As more evidence of online and offline gambler behavior becomes available through longitudinal research, future studies should be able to enlighten this relationship more fully.
"The key takeaway is that wider adoption of online gambling may not increase problem gambling rates. So, if the main reason that policymakers are concerned about expanding online gambling is that they are cautious about its potential effects on public health -- and indeed these are the conversations we tend to see in public debates -- then they should now lean toward expansion rather than restriction," Philander said.