Is online gambling more ‘dangerous’ than offline gambling?

A question that is often asked by policymakers is whether online gambling is more ‘dangerous’ or ‘harmful’ than offline gambling. The answer to this question depends on what the definitions are of ‘harmful’ or ‘dangerous’ or (more importantly) whether online gambling is more harmful or dangerous to particular kinds of people (e.g., problem gamblers). There has been much debate in both the media and academic research outlets related to this question. This is an issue that Michael Auer and I recently examined in more detail in an article in Casino and Gambling International (CGI).

In our CGI article, we noted that there have also been a number of different approaches to collecting information about online gamblers. We argued that most published studies concerning online gambling have used one of two approaches – behavioural tracking studies (e.g., studies that collect data based on real online gamblers’ data typically supplied by online gaming operators to academic researchers) and self-report studies (e.g., studies that collect data via surveys, focus groups and/or interviews). Studies using self-report methods have tended to argue that problem gambling is more prevalent among online gamblers compared to offline gamblers. Studies using behavioural tracking data have tended to argue that online gambling is no more dangerous than offline gambling. At face value, this suggests that findings (relating to ‘dangerousness’ of the gambling medium) appear to depend upon the methodology used.

Both of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages. In our CGI article, we noted the following key differences between these two methods:

  • Behavioural tracking data provides a totally objective record of an individual’s gambling behaviour on a particular online gambling website (whereas individuals in self-report studies may be prone to social desirability factors, unreliable memory, etc.).
  • Behavioural tracking data provide a record of events and can be revisited after the event itself has finished (whereas self-report studies cannot).
  • Behavioural tracking data usually comprise very large sample sizes whereas self-report studies are based on much smaller sample sizes.
  • Behavioural tracking data collects data from only one gambling site and tells us nothing about the person’s Internet gambling in general (as Internet gamblers typically gamble on more than one site)
  • Behavioural tracking data always comes from unrepresentative samples (i.e., the players that use one particular internet gambling site) whereas the very best self-report studies (e.g., the British Gambling Prevalence Surveys in Great Britain) use random and nationally representative samples
  • Behavioural tracking data does not account for the fact that more than one person can use a particular account
  • Behavioural tracking data tell us nothing about why people gamble (whereas self-report data can provide greater insight into motivation to gamble)
  • Behavioural tracking data cannot be used for comparing online and offline gambling or for making comparisons about whether online gambling is safer or more dangerous than offline gambling as data are only collected on one group of people (i.e., online gamblers).
  • Self-report methods can be used to compare two (or more) groups of gamblers and is the only method we currently have to infer to what extent one medium of gambling may or may not be more or less safe.
  • Some self-report studies have the potential to use nationally representative samples of gamblers whereas behavioural tracking studies rely on self-selected samples of gamblers who use the online gambling website in question.
  • Behavioural tracking data tell us nothing about the relationships between gambling and other behaviours (e.g. the relationship between gambling and alcohol or the relationship between gambling and tobacco use).
  • Behavioural tracking data cannot examine problem gambling using current diagnostic criteria (whereas self-report studies can). In fact, behavioural tracking data studies cannot tell us anything about problem gambling as this is not a variable that has been examined in any of the published studies to date.

To date, one team of researchers affiliated to Harvard University have been given access to a large behavioural tracking data set of over 47,000 online gamblers by the Austrian gaming company bwin. This has led to many papers examining the actual behaviour of online gamblers based on behavioural tracking data. These data have been used to make claims along the lines that online gambling is no more problematic than offline gambling.

However, comparative statements relating to whether one medium of gambling is more problematic than another can only be made if actual gambling behavior is studied across different forms of gambling (e.g., direct comparison of internet gambling with [say] land-based casino gambling). None of the various publications by the Harvard-affiliated research team have empirically compared different forms of gambling. Nor have they examined ‘problem gambling’ as no problem gambling screens were given to any online gambler included in their studies. Therefore, conclusions about the harmfulness of online gambling in comparison to other forms of gambling cannot be drawn from these particular studies. Furthermore, none of the publications focusing on online gambling examine overall gambling behavior. All the publications have tended to examine a single type of game (e.g., sports betting, casino games, poker).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D.  (2011). Empirical internet gambling research (1996-2008): Some further comments. Addiction Research and Theory, 19, 85-86.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2011). Approaches to understanding online versus offline gaming impacts. Casino and Gaming International, 7(3), 45-48.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Socio-demographic correlates of internet gambling: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199-202.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.

LaBrie, R.A., Kaplan, S., LaPlante, D.A., Nelson, S.E., & Shaffer, H.J. (2008). Inside the virtual casino: A prospective longitudinal study of Internet casino gambling. European Journal of Public Health, 18(4), 410-416

LaBrie, R.A., LaPlante, D.A., Nelson, S.E., Schumann, A. & Shaffer, H.J. (2007). Assessing the playing field: A prospective longitudinal study of internet sports gambling behavior. Journal of Gambling Studies, 23, 347-363.

LaPlante, D.A., Kleschinsky, J.H., LaBrie, R.A., Nelson, S.E. & Shaffer, H.J. (2009). Sitting at the virtual poker table: A prospective epidemiological study of actual Internet poker gambling behavior. Computers in Human Behavior 25, 711-717.

LaPlante, D. A., Schumann, A., LaBrie, R. A., & Shaffer, H. J. (2008). Population trends in Internet sports gambling. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 2399–2414.

Shaffer, H.J., Peller, A.J., LaPlante, D.A., Nelson, S.E., & LaBrie, R.A. (2010). Toward a paradigm shift in Internet gambling research: From opinion and self-report to actual behavior. Addiction Research and Theory, 18, 270–283.

Wardle, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Defining the ‘online gambler’: The British perspective. World Online Gambling Law Report, 10(2), 12-13.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J. & and Volberg, R. (2011). Defining the online gambler and patterns of behaviour integration: Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Gambling Studies, 11, 339-356.

Xuan, Z.M. & Shaffer, H.J. (2009). How do gamblers end gambling: Longitudinal analysis of internet gambling behaviors prior to account closure due to gambling related problems. Journal of Gambling Studies, 25, 239-252.



About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 17, 2011, in Addiction, Gambling, Internet gambling, Online gambling, Problem gamblng, Psychology, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

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