Gambling online: Easy, available
The authors note that past research has identified increased gambling problems during economic crises in other countries.
“While currently speculative, financial hardships may promote gambling as individuals may be motivated to gamble to try to win money,” the authors suggested. “Although presently limited, existing data suggest that COVID-19–related financial concerns may increase gambling-related harms, and this possibility merits systematic research.”
But trends and characteristics of the gambling market, including direct effects from the pandemic, can potentially influence behaviors, too. Most casinos have closed during the pandemic, and most of the sports that people bet on have been canceled or postponed.
“Fewer people are gambling on sports, but they turn then to other areas,” Dr. Potenza said. “If they can’t bet on major league type sports, they might gamble on more local sporting events, or they may bet on other activities going on in society during the pandemic.”
But online gambling poses greater risk.
“Properties of online gambling may constitute a particular health hazard when many people are confined to their homes and have had rapid changes in working conditions, psychosocial stress, anxiety, and depression, as has been described in China,” the paper’s authors wrote. “Online gambling may be particularly concerning due to its availability and velocity” and association with higher debt levels.
In addition to online gaming’s ease and availability, past research has found patients report boredom and escapism as reasons they turned to it.
Again, boredom on its own is not necessarily a problem, but for those who already struggle with addictive behaviors, it can be a trigger, Dr. Kraus said.
“Boredom is very tough for them because it’s often associated with negative emotions,” such as dwelling on things not going well in their lives, he said. “In a pandemic, people are by themselves quite a bit, socially isolated, so for those who are struggling already with some depression or anxiety, it’s only going to be increased.”
Online gaming trends may vary with demographics, however. Dr. Kraus noted that his former clinic at the Veterans Administration has been seeing lower gambling in patients with addictive disorders, but those patients are also older and primarily frequented casinos.
“It’s going to depend on age and familiarity with technology,” he said, but even if older problem gamblers are not going to the Internet now, “let’s wait and see what happens in the next 2 or 3 months.”
The authors noted results from a small survey of patients in treatment for gambling addiction at the Bellvitge University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain, where two of the coauthors work. They conducted telephone surveys with 26 patients about the first 4 weeks of sheltering in place because of the coronavirus. All but four of the patients were male, and their average age was 45 years.
“Most presented worries about increased uncertainties, such as the negative impact on their work, risk of COVID-19 infection of themselves or their loved ones and their treatment,” the authors reported.
Although 19% were completely abstinent, an additional 12% (n = 3) reported worsened gambling. In addition, almost half (46%) reported anxiety symptoms and more than a quarter (27%) had depressive symptoms.