Cryptocurrency trading is often portrayed as a lot of fun—the memes, the excitement, and the promise of quick riches all draw people in, but for those who become addicted these aspects can mask the dark side of trading digital money.
Case in point: At Castle Craig Hospital in Scotland, the gambling addiction program now includes treatment for addiction to cryptocurrency trading. Often, cryptocurrency trading is only one aspect of an overall gambling addiction, but sometimes it can be a dangerous obsession all on its own. Castle Craig treats both cases.
Here at Motherboard we’ve published numerous stories covering and commenting on the wild frontier of cryptocurrency trading—it’s volatile, prone to shenanigans, and unpredictable. In short, as Ed Zitron put it in a recent op-ed, it’s a roulette wheel that rarely stops spinning; On a neurological level, it is absolutely a rush.
To find out how cryptocurrency trading crosses over into an addiction, and how to treat it, I spoke to Chris Burn, a therapist in Castle Craig’s gambling addiction treatment program, over the phone.
Motherboard: Why was this treatment implemented?
Chris Burn: At Castle Craig over the past 12 months we’ve seen a big increase in inquiries from people asking about treatment for trading in cryptocurrencies. That has translated into very few people actually going through the treatment. But quite a few people have come into treatment with gambling addictions, which include a certain amount of dabbling in cryptocurrency. It's still relatively rare to find someone whose sole addiction is trading in Bitcoin but it’s very clear to us that this is something on the increase.
There are lots of behavioural addictions that have popped up since the start of the 21st century, because of the simple fact that people have a computer in their homes, and a credit card, and the internet. Bitcoin or cryptocurrency trading of any kind is just one of a number of new addictions, like shopping or mobile phone addiction.
We see it as a kind of gambling, but it’s a particularly addictive kind of gambling because it’s exciting. Twenty-four hours a day, if you’re watching prices move whether you’re making money or losing it, it takes you out of reality and keeps you doing the activity a long time. That’s what gamblers love. It’s not the winning, but repeating the activity and getting the same kind of excitement all the time. There are people who are addicted to normal, ordinary currencies like the dollar or the pound, but they’re not as exciting because they tend not to fluctuate the way cryptocurrency does.
When does following the Bitcoin price, or cryptocurrency trading, cross over into problematic behaviour?
Some people might say, ‘This is great, I’m making money, I can do this, this is wonderful.’ What they might fail to realize is that they’re spending 14 hours a day in front of a screen, and other aspects of their life suffer. They can become very isolated, they might not be doing any other kind of work, they may not be exercising, and they may be experiencing a lot of anxiety. They may not realize that they are in fact displaying symptoms of a serious addiction. Of course, reality comes to the fore when they discover they’re losing money. That’s usually when the crunch happens; when serious negative consequences appear, for gamblers of any kind—when you run out of money. And then the pain really starts.
What are some of the treatment steps?
When people go into treatment for an addiction problem, they really have to look at themselves and make changes—not just in their behaviours, but in their attitudes. They often have the attitude that they can make a lot of money quickly, or beat the system, or that they’re lucky. They can have very unrealistic attitudes about themselves.
But more than that, they need cognitive behavioural therapy. They need to look at reality, what they want out of life compared to where they want now; presumably, because they’re in treatment, they’re experiencing negative consequences. How do they get from there to living a normal life free from addiction? For gamblers and currency traders, that may involve handing over control of finances, reducing use of computers, giving up their credit cards—really serious steps, because they need to recognize that this kind of addiction leads people to despair and beyond despair: to suicide. Gambling has the highest rate of any addiction of people committing suicide.
It’s a process of self-discovery and learning new habits so you can live a new, different life perfectly happily.
How many people have gone through this treatment?
So far we’ve had one person who has successfully completed treatment who was solely addicted to cryptocurrency trading. Besides that, we’ve had quite a number of people for whom part of their addiction has been trading in those currencies, as well as doing other forms of gambling.
Do you think there are people who are addicted to cryptocurrency trading, but who aren’t seeking treatment because they don’t consider it gambling?
Probably there are people who think they are just doing a normal activity and probably thinking that they’re quite smart to be doing it, and doing it well, sure. People only come to treatment for addiction when the consequences become very, very negative and they realize they have to do something about it. I’m sure there are a lot of people who may be wondering whether they should be cutting down on the activity, wondering if they’re spending too much time on it to the detriment of their friendships and things like that. If they’re wondering that, then yes they probably do have a problem and they should take some steps to deal with it before it becomes a lot more difficult.
How has the addiction treatment community responded to your focus on cryptocurrency trading as an aspect of addiction?
I don’t think there’s been very much response yet. I don’t think anybody is arguing against the potential being there for it to be a big problem. This is nothing against the currency itself any more than people trading dollars and pounds. It’s just that the way it’s so poorly regulated, and the air of mystery and the excitement around it, the ignorance some people have and the fact that they don’t want to miss out on a good thing—all of that leads to a kind of bubble that can have disastrous consequences.
What would you say to anyone reading this who might be starting to question their relationship to Bitcoin or cryptocurrency trading?
Ask yourself, ‘What is the reality? Am I really making a success of this? Is it worth it? It might be in financial terms, but is it affecting other parts of my life in negative ways that I may not even be aware of? If your answer is,I am seriously wondering if I have a problem,’ then I would seek advice. You could do a lot worse than going to Gamblers Anonymous and seeing what they think.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .