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.
“Being able to just sit in bed and go on my phone and gamble made it almost impossible to stop.”
Do you have insight into the online gambling industry? How has it affected your life? We want to hear from you. From a non-work device, contact our reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Signal at 310-614-3752 for extra security.
“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.
“They have access to it 24/7 in the palm of their hands. The temptation is always there.”
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.
“Everything being at your fingertips was just terrible.”
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.
“We call it the hidden addiction. As long as you have a smartphone, you have access to all sorts of gambling at your fingertips.”
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.
“I can't believe that I see all these young 20-somethings coming in,” one member of Gamblers Anonymous said.
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.Sign up for Motherboard’s daily newsletter for a regular dose of our original reporting, plus behind-the-scenes content about our biggest stories.
“I could do everything you could do at a casino on my phone.”