Gambling is big business in the UK. According to NHS Digital, 57% of men and 54% of women reported gambling in 2018, while the Gambling Commission suggests that online gambling grew by 8.1% from 2019 to 2020.
During the pandemic, gambling changed quite significantly: while consumers could still buy scratchcards and lottery tickets in supermarkets and off licenses, betting shops were closed and sports matches cancelled, leading many activities to move entirely online. And according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bristol, although the British public gambled less overall during lockdown, among regular gamblers, rates of online gambling increased substantially.
Data came from participants in a longitudinal study that has been taking place since the 1990s, who were sent extra questionnaires during the 2020 lockdown. Questions on gambling focused on activity in the previous month, with participants asked whether, and how often, they had engaged in the National Lottery, scratchcards, online gambling or betting, and other forms of gambling. The questionnaires also focused on participants’ mental health and financial security and employment.
Overall, gambling frequency reduced during lockdown — unsurprising, considering that many in-person opportunities to gamble were off-limits. This was true for both regular gamblers (those who gambled once a week or more before the pandemic) and occasional gamblers (who gambled less than weekly). However, the proportion of people taking part in online gambling activities like poker, bingo, and casino games increased sixfold among regular gamblers, and doubled among occasional gamblers.
Neither depression nor anxiety were linked with frequency of gambling. However, alcohol use was: people who drank heavily — more than six units more than once a week — were more likely to gamble weekly compared to not gambling at all. Finances were also relevant — people who were struggling financially even before COVID-19 hit were more likely to engage in any kind of gambling during lockdown.
It’s not a huge surprise that online gambling increased during the pandemic: there were fewer opportunities for gambling outside of the home, and as a recreational activity, gambling may have relieved the boredom of lockdown. But the team worry that online gambling could represent a bigger threat than its offline counterpart to some groups, with young people in particular susceptible to being “sucked in” to addictive online gambling. The rise of eSports and the increasingly popular combination of gaming and gambling could be a particular issue here — overall, the Gambling Commission found the biggest increase during lockdown was in bets on eSports. Increased levels of home working, too, could also lead more people, alone at home, to start gambling.
The strong link between binge drinking and gambling was also of concern, lead author Alan Emond said, as they are “both addictive behaviours which can have serious health and social consequences.” Many of those who reported gambling had also faced financial difficulties before COVID-19, another concerning finding of the study — gambling to get out of difficult financial situations could simply compound the issue, drawing people into even more debt. The team also suggests that the study may have underestimated the extent of gambling, as 70% of participants were women and men were more likely to be regular gamblers.
Not all gambling behaviour will be problematic: many people happily buy the odd scratchcard or enter the Lottery every week without developing a serious problem. However, the links with both alcohol use and financial insecurity point to the darker side of gambling — and may suggest that digital interventions or restrictions on gambling sites could be needed to reach people who are struggling with gambling at home.
If you are concerned about your gambling, GamCare offers free information, support and counselling for problem gamblers in the UK. It runs the National Gambling Helpline (0808 8020 133) and offers face-to-face counselling.