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Gripped by ‘crypt’: A brief look at ‘crypto-trading addiction’

Last week I was approached by Rupert Wolfe-Murray, a PR representative of a well-known addiction treatment clinic (Castle Craig) asking what my views were on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading (colloquially known as ‘crypto trading’) and whether the activity could be addictive. More specifically he wrote:

“I write to you about the research we’re doing into addiction to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. We’ve had an enquiry about this at Castle Craig and they would treat it as a gambling addiction. We think it’s a new type of behavioural addiction and we plan to publish a web page (and FAQ) with the intention of alerting people that the online trading of cryptocurrencies may be addictive. It would be very helpful if we could get a quote from you, putting it into perspective. Do you think it’s a growing problem? There’s very little information about this issue online but there is an active forum of ‘crypto addicts’ on Reddit, where I got some friendly feedback…The therapist I often turn to when writing about gambling and the behavioural addictions told me that it sounds like addiction to day trading. Would you agree?”

In short, I couldn’t agree more although my own view is that this is not a ‘new’ addiction but a sub-type of online day-trading addiction (on which I first published an article about back in 2000 for GamCare, the gambling charity I co-founded with Paul Bellringer in 1997) and/or stock market trading addiction (which I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about, here and here, and an article in iGaming Business Affiliate magazine). However, I decided to do a bit of research into the issue.

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A recent January 2018 article in the Jakarta Post by Ario Tamat examined this issue which was a personal account of his own experiences (‘Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank’). He wrote:

“I was always interested in Bitcoin, not that I really understand the technology, but first impressions were appealing: a decentralized currency, mined by solving mathematical equations and potentially accessible to anyone…Fast forward to 2017. Discussions on cryptocurrencies had entered the public consciousness, Bitcoin prices were sky high… A few friends introduced me to a local site on cryptocurrency trading – the most suitable term for the entire affair, actually – bitcoin.co.id. Taking the leap, I took some money out of my measly savings and bought myself some Bitcoin…In three days, I had made 6 percent. I was hooked… I’ve noticed that the whole cryptocurrency trading trend is like placing bets on a never-ending horse race, where new horses are introduced to the race almost daily”.

Another article by Douglas Lampi on the Steemit website noted that “the elements of addiction and gambling are a consistent risk that traders must always be on the guard against” and provided some signs to readers that they may be trading impulsively. These included (i) feeling muscle tension, (ii) feeling background anxiety, (iii) checking the price of Bitcoin and alt coins several times through the day, and (iv) thinking about trading while engaged in other activities. While these ‘symptoms’ and behaviours might be found among those addicted to crypto day trading, on their own they are arguably little more than mildly problematic. These signs applied to gambling or social media use would be unlikely to raise many worries among addiction treatment practitioners.

I also visited the online Bitcoin Forum where one of the topics was ‘Is crypto trading an addiction’ prompted by a Russian who allegedly committed suicide after losing all his money crypto trading. Most of the people on the forum didn’t think it was an addiction and claimed the suicide was reminiscent of the suicides that occurred at the time of the 2009 stock market crash (although a couple of individuals believed that crypto trading was a potentially ‘addicting’ activity). One participant in the discussion noted:

“Yes [crypto trading is] highly addictive, specially formulated if you start to notice that need, urge in side you, to check the price even in the middle of the night. Find yourself skipping your daily routines it is and can be addictive if you don’t know how to control you and your emotions. I have found somewhere that some say that it is like being in casino, betting, playing rules etc. because like every coin was made mostly for pure profit and it’s all speculation rather than to have their own sole purpose which when I think of it can make sense to even why it can be addictive”.

Another individual on the Bitcoin Pub website wrote:

“I think I might actually have an unhealthy addiction to [crypto trading]. I’d say 3/4 times when I unlock my phone I’m checking Blockfolio, when I’m at work, at home, with my girlfriend, or even between sets at the gym. I’m starting to think I need to discipline myself to NOT check it or limit it to maybe 1-2 times a day as its noticeably impacting my passions and in turn my mental state. I’m not a day trader, I hold all my coins in cold storage. So there’s really no reason for me to be checking that frequently, or watching crypto analysis YouTube videos, or reading articles about it several times a day”.

The issue was also discussed in a recent February 2018 article in the Irish Times by Fiona Reddan (‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto’). Interviewing Nicholas Charalambous (Managing Director of Alpha Wealth) was quoted as saying: “Previously, I would have described cryptos as ‘shares on steroids’; now I would say they’re shares with jetpacks and boosters and then some”. While Bitcoin shares have fallen, there are plenty of new cryptocurrencies that individuals can dabble buying shares in (ethereum, litecoin, ripple, putincoin and dogecoin) and all can be akin to gambling. Reddan also interviewed Jonathan Sheehan (Managing Director, Compass Private Wealth) who said:

“It has the exact same risk and return characteristics as a naive gambler, who has opened their first online betting account. There is absolutely no valuation metric for these currencies and allocating capital to them is an extreme and unnecessary risk”.

One country that has taken crypto trading addiction seriously is South Korea. Their government’s Office for Government Policy Coordination has introduced new rules to inhibit the speculation on cryptocurrencies. According to a Market Watch article:

“The proposed measures…range from levying capital-gain taxes on trading cryptocurrencies, to restricting financial firms from holding, acquiring and investing in them…The new regulations come amid mounting concern within South Korea about the potential for people to become addicted to bitcoin trading”.

The country’s prime minister Lee Nak-yon went as far as to say that the increasing interest in cryptocurrencies could “lead to some serious distorted or pathological phenomenon”.

I did quickly check what had been written about academically. I came across a couple of papers on Google Scholar that mentioned possible addiction to crypto trading. Justine Brecese (in a 2013 ‘research note’ on the socioeconomic implications of cyber‐currencies for ASA Risk Consultants) asserted that risks with virtual currency include the potential for addiction and resultant over-spending” (but providing little in the way of empirical evidence for the claim). In a paper by Haraši Namztohoto on ‘cryptocoin avarice’, he noted:

“Reason often discretely quits the cognitive battlefield whenever hoarding tendencies of human beings are coupled with addictive behaviour which financial derivate trading surely is, thus leaving humans prone to caprices of mass psychology”.

Given that addictions rely on constant rewards and reinforcement, there is no theoretical reason why crypto trading cannot be addictive. However, there is only anecdotal evidence of addicted individuals and if they are addicted a case could be made that this is a type of gambling addiction.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brecese, J. (2013). Research note – Money from nothing: The socioeconomic implications of “cyber-currencies”. Seattle, WA: ASA Institute for Risk & Innovation

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Day trading: Another possible gambling addiction? GamCare News, 8, 13-14.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Financial trading as a form of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 40.

Namztohoto, H. (2013). Myth, machinery and cryptocoin avarice. Wizzion.com. Located at: http://wizzion.com/papers/2013/cryptocoin-avarice.pdf

Jeong, E-Y. & Russolillo, S. (2017). South Korea mulls taxing cryptocurrency trade as fears mount about bitcoin addiction, speculation. Market Watch, December 13. Located at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/south-korea-mulls-taxing-cryptocurrency-trade-as-fears-mount-about-bitcoin-addiction-speculation-2017-12-13

Lampi, D. (2018). Two sure signs YOU are a crypto trading addict. Steemit.com. February. Located: https://steemit.com/cryptocurrency/@ipmal/two-sure-signs-you-are-a-crypto-trading-addict

Reddan, F. (2018). ‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto. Irish Times, February 13. Located at: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/financial-services/it-s-addictive-why-investors-are-still-flocking-to-bitcoin-and-crypto-1.3388392

Tamat, A. (2018). Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank. The Jakarta Post, January 8. Located at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2018/01/08/bitcoin-trading-addictive-hobby-that-could-break-my-bank.html