It didn’t get bad for Jason until recently, when gambling on his phone became both available and socially acceptable.
For most of his life, he had enjoyed betting money here and there—say, during poker with friends as a teen and on the occasional casino trip. He even occasionally bet on sports through foreign-based companies.
None of it ever seemed or felt like much of a problem to him—that is, until the pandemic. The previous year, his home state of Illinois had legalized sports betting and expanded casino gambling, flooding the state with advertisements. It didn’t take long before Jason was hearing about gambling “all day every day,” he said. When he started to go through personal issues at home in 2020, he found himself at the casino trying to burn off some steam.
Soon enough, however, he preferred online gambling. The casinos, he came to believe, were less efficient—“too much non-gambling time,” he said—and led to questions about where he had been. By comparison, his phone allowed him to be “100 percent plugged in” from anywhere, without people asking questions. “I could do everything you could do at a casino on my phone,” he said. But, he added, “I didn’t have to explain where I was or anything like that. I didn't have to answer to anybody.”
“Being able to just sit in bed and go on my phone and gamble made it almost impossible to stop.”
Unlike sports betting, online casino gambling remained illegal in Illinois, and Jason wasn’t sure if the online games he was playing were legal or not. “But there was never any red tape to get past in order to play those games,” he said.
Regardless of the legality, the growing prevalence of gambling in society helped him legitimize his habit to himself. It felt less “seedy,” he said, even if he would gamble until three in the morning while his kids slept “and then wake up and do it again.” By this year, Jason didn’t go a day without gambling.
“I felt like I had to be gambling at all times,” he said.
He would ultimately blow through “a couple hundred thousand dollars” before admitting he had become a problem gambler in May. Still, Jason considers himself “a slightly better case than average.” Since he joined Gamblers Anonymous, he’s heard stories of people losing homes and living out of their car.
In the U.S. this century, gambling has become more wholly legitimized, released from the confines of Atlantic City and Las Vegas and into the broader culture. Gambling advertisements litter the country, and more than 20 states now allow casinos, compared to just nine in 2001. Roughly the same number have legalized online sports betting and more people are pushing for legal online casinos as well.
Politicians say the legalization of gambling provides states with much-needed additional revenue and allows the government to more adequately oversee gambling and responsibly help those who develop issues. These arguments, as well as ones against prohibitionary schemes generally, are difficult to refute in theory; in practice, it’s not yet clear whether state agencies are taking their oversight commitments as seriously as they should.
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The omnipresence of gambling and gambling-like activities has made financial catastrophe a few clicks away for anyone with a phone. Experts increasingly see the simultaneous rise of online sports betting, online casinos (legal or not), cryptocurrency trading, and day trading as the same root thing—gambling—with the same root issues.
Often, they even involve the same people. Survey data out of the National Council on Problem Gambling last year found a significant correlation between people who trade on a weekly basis and gamble as well. “There's a big overlap there,” said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the organization. The true extent of the issue is only now starting to emerge and is in need of additional study, said Lucas Trautman, the medical director of Oxford Treatment Center in Mississippi and a psychiatrist who has helped people with addictive disorders including gambling.
“It's blown up under our nose,” Trautman said.
Cindi M. has certainly noticed a lot of people like Jason coming to meetings recently. A member of Gamblers Anonymous who now serves as the public relations chair for the group’s board of trustees, she said there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of young men developing compulsive gambling issues and showing up to meetings since online sports gambling became legal in Illinois three years ago.
The effect on young people—and particularly young men—has been noticeable to Cindi, whose own sons have told her that all their friends gamble these days. (After Motherboard published this piece, Cindi asked that we remove her surname so she was not in violation of her program’s rules.)
That lines up with additional survey data from the National Council on Problem Gambling, which has found that over 40 percent of people ages 18-44 gambled online last year—compared to just 21 percent of people ages 45-54—and that over a quarter of them increased the amount they played during the pandemic.
“They have access to it 24/7 in the palm of their hands. The temptation is always there.”
“They have access to it 24/7 in the palm of their hands,” Cindi said. “The temptation is always there. You can stay away from casinos and racetracks but you can't stop using your phone.”
That has made it easy for people like Jason to develop gambling problems and harder for them to resist the impulse to place another big bet, according to Whyte.
“It's pretty conclusively established in the gambling literature that ease of access is a risk factor for the development of gambling problems,” Whyte said. “Ease of access alone doesn't make doesn't make someone a gambling addict. But it certainly can contribute to an increase in the rate and severity.”
The ease of access is clear and growing. In January, the first month mobile sports gambling became legal in New York, people wagered a record $1.6 billion online, more than any other state in its opening month. But Ashley Owen, a team leader at the NYC Problem Gambling Resource Center, funded by the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports, still has trouble convincing people to take gambling issues seriously. Part of the issue, she said, is that problem gambling has become harder to detect. People with gambling problems less often exhibit physical symptoms compared to people with substance abuse issues. And now, with the rise of mobile gambling, people can gamble in the privacy of their own home without their loved ones knowing, which has “altered the landscape significantly,” Owen said.
“We call it the hidden addiction,” she continued. “As long as you have a smartphone, you have access to all sorts of gambling at your fingertips.”
One middle-aged man in the Chicago area— who asked that Motherboard not use his name as his job gives him access to clients’ personal information—was able to hide the true extent of his online gambling addiction from his wife until they wanted to get a new patio.
“Everything being at your fingertips was just terrible.”
The problem had begun when the Chicago man lost one of his jobs early in the pandemic and needed extra income to support his wife and three kids. “I got three kids. So when one of my jobs went away, that was a big hole in our budget,” he said. “It was pretty tough for me. Like, where the heck am I going to get this money?” That’s when a friend introduced him to an online poker app where people could host games. At first, he was open with his wife about his play, since nothing he was doing was too notable. Every once in a while, she’d even see a deposit for a couple hundred bucks in their bank account.
But the accessibility of the gambling games made it difficult to stop. “Everything being at your fingertips was just terrible,” he said. Soon, he was playing during work and thought about gambling so much he could barely sleep. “I'd be waiting for the next table to be opened up in the morning by the poker guys,” he said. Sometimes, he found himself physically shaking. “You get to this point where you just can't stop, and you're thinking all the time, I just got to go back on.” he said.
He also became “really, really secretive.” He opened up his own checking account and multiple credit cards. He went into his payroll account and made sure to take out an extra $200 every two weeks. He even took out a loan to feed his online habit.
“I spun this web that was just awful,” he said.
Then, they applied for a loan to install a new patio in their backyard. The man knew they were going to pull their credit. What he didn’t realize was that they’d give his wife a copy of his. When she saw it, “she almost went insane—and understandably,” the man said. “I thought it was over. I totally thought my life and my marriage was over, and that I was gonna lose my kids.”
“We call it the hidden addiction. As long as you have a smartphone, you have access to all sorts of gambling at your fingertips.”
His wife stayed with him, and the man installed an anti-gambling app on his phone to try and stop himself from gambling online. The man also joined Gamblers Anonymous, where he was shocked by the number of young people he met there. “I can't believe that I see all these young 20-somethings coming in,” he said. “It's very disheartening.”
Nick, a 21-year-old in California, is one of those young people. He had first gambled as a young teen, when he visited family on the East Coast and one of his cousins introduced him to legal online sports gambling. Nick wasn’t old enough to gamble then, but he found it easy enough to get around the systems the companies had set up. “It really wasn't that hard to create an account under my dad's name,” he said. By the time he was a senior in high school, Nick was gambling on his laptop in class. Then, when he went to college, the situation devolved as he moved from online sports gambling to a bookie he could text at all hours.
“For me, being able to just sit in bed and go on my phone and gamble made it almost impossible to stop,” Nick said. “I can't just get rid of my phone.”
“I can't believe that I see all these young 20-somethings coming in,” one member of Gamblers Anonymous said.
He’d stay up until 4 a.m. gambling on his phone then go to class at 8 a.m. A straight-A student in high school, he earned a 2.2 GPA his first semester of college When Nick eventually realized he had a problem and joined Gamblers Anonymous, he was one of the youngest people there.
He couldn’t help but feel a bit different than the older people he was meeting. For one thing, unlike a lot of them, he had never entered a casino.
Taking a page from social media and online shopping sites, mobile gambling sites employ “very, very aggressive marketing” tactics that can be hard for problem gamblers to escape, according to Keith Whyte, the executive director at the National Council on Problem Gambling. Third-party data collection, for example, allows the gambling industry to create customized, alluring offers designed to get people to come back and spend more, he said.
Numerous studies have indicated that phone addiction has become prevalent in society, especially among people under 30, but there isn’t yet even a clear and agreed-upon conceptual framework for analyzing the problem of gambling in the mobile-phone era. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association recategorized gambling disorder as “similar to substance-related disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But it’s also proposed internet gaming disorder for potential addition as a distinct disorder, and cited a need for further research.
“The fact that it's on the phone is so crucial in the cultivation of an addictive disorder,” said Trautman, the psychiatrist who treats people with gambling disorders, of online gambling.
Whyte has been trying to get politicians to take his issue seriously since 1998. These days, he’s seeing even less interest from Washington D.C. in talking about the downsides of gambling. When they do talk to him, the politicians and policymakers are often still prone to place the blame on the individual, who they see as immoral or weak-willed, he said.
“They're still trapped in our traditional, moral, and religious cultural views around gambling,” he said.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that so many gamblers struggle quietly and alone, making problem gambling seem like less of an issue. Less than 1 percent of people with a gambling problem seek help, according to Whyte.
But another is that sports gambling looks increasingly like good politics. According to recent polls, as many as two-thirds of Americans believe sports betting should be legal, and the tax revenue can be substantial. Illinois has already generated over $100 million for itself, and New York this year has already earned $267 million in tax revenue from sports betting. The money will help fund education programs, as well as problem gambling prevention, treatment, and recovery services, though so-called “sin taxes” have been criticized as regressive in nature.
“I could do everything you could do at a casino on my phone.”
Since he stopped gambling in May, Jason has noticed with fresh eyes just how prevalent the gambling industry has become. Nationally, entire sports shows are now dedicated to gambling, and others don’t go long without mentioning an exciting potential parlay bet. Gambling commercials play all the time on the radio and when he watches sports, and the leagues themselves have signed official partnerships with companies like FanDuel and DraftKings.
“It is everywhere now,” Jason said. “It's kind of disgusting when you start to look at it from the outside in.”
This post has been updated to remove Cindi M.’s full surname.
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