How many betting companies can you name? One? Three? Five? At 23 years old and being an avid sports fan so I’ve seen a lot of gambling advertising in the 15 years I’ve been watching sports on television and online. If I sat back and asked myself to name betting companies I would get to between three and five.
According to an Australian study from 2016 over three-quarters of children aged between 8-16 correctly recalled the name of at least one sports betting brand. Just over one-quarter of children were able to identify four or more sports betting brands. Think about that for a second. There are 8-year-old kids who can name more sports betting brands than you can. Surely that is completely abnormal?
Some of the attitudes of the children who were surveyed reflect this abnormality. When discussing sports betting being advertising during games one child said ‘They shouldn’t be allowed during sport because lots of kids watch it. Ads pull you in, it’s bad.’ Another pointed out that the TV stations should be more careful with the sponsors they choose saying ’They choose sponsors, they could pick other ones’.
Parental responses ran in a similar vein with one parent saying, ‘They shouldn’t advertise – they shouldn’t run odds at games or apps, and not have ads on websites’. Another parent was afraid of the implications of famous players being associated with this kind of adverting saying ‘They need to advertise outside the game. Children idolise their players and they see it flash up all the time, it’s going to impact them.’
Gambling has moved on from the dark, dingy shops where older men stay to watch horse race after horserace. Gambling has flooded the market and is easily accessible from bingo to casino games to your sports odds. Today, you can bet on pretty much anything in an instant. One particular favourite of mine is every year there are odds on whether or not the UK will receive any points in Eurovision.
So why is any of this important? If you look at something a little closer to home, you might see why. In the Premier League, as of the 2017/2018 season, 9 out of the 20 teams are sponsored by betting companies. One particular example is Stoke City who play their home games in the Bet365 stadium. The stadium was originally named the Britannia Stadium for 19 years before being renamed in 2016 following the naming rights being sold to their shirt sponsor Bet365 for 6 years in a deal which netted around £30 million for the club.
Given the popularity of the worldwide popularity of the Premier League, the influence of betting companies cannot be ignored. If you begin to watch football regularly at the age of 6 with your parents how many gambling ads have you seen by the time you’re 10? How many betting companies can you name by the time you’re 10? Given the amount of sponsorship these companies get, it could easily be 6 or 8 companies. That sort of normalisation is worrying and could have many consequences for children in the future.
In fact, we’re already seeing some of the consequences in the gaming world. Anyone familiar with gaming knows the problem of loot boxes. For those unfamiliar, a loot box is essentially where you pay real money to try and win exclusive or hard to get content via regular gameplay. It’s a very subtle form of gambling that people of all ages are being exposed to.
This danger has been spotted by Chinese and more recently Belgian authorities. In November 2017, the Belgian gambling authority said that these ‘microtransactions’ within games are harming children and should be banned as they’re a form of gambling. This followed on from Hawaiian politician Chris Lee declaring that the loot boxes within the new Star Wars Battlefront 2 game were a ‘Star Wars-themed online casino, designed to lure kids into spending money’. As of 2017, Chinese authorities now require game developers to release the probabilities of loot boxes to players, so they can make informed decisions about whether it is worthwhile to pay for them.
Gambling is fun, there is no question about that. The rush when you place a bet is quite exhilarating and the feeling of winning is pretty good too. As we know that rush of adrenaline and that hit of dopamine is quite addictive. Gambling like drugs or alcohol can become an addiction quite quickly.
In our brain, we have the reward pathway, a system where when we do something pleasurable such as eat good food or have good sex, dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good is released. This dopamine release is a reward which makes us feel good and we seek to get that reward again.
The problem as documented with drugs like heroin or cocaine is that you start to need bigger and bigger hits of the substance to get the same dopamine release. You build up a tolerance and your connections between the frontal lobe which controls our behaviour are decreased. This decrease leads to what we call drug seeking behaviour where people begin to behave in ways which will get them the drug again such as stealing money from loved ones to feed the addiction.
Now I am not for one second suggesting that 12-year olds buying loot boxes while playing Overwatch is going to lead to them developing a gambling addiction. What is concerning is the normalisation of gambling from advertising during sports events to loot boxes within games. The permeation of gambling into many aspects of our lives it not a good thing and given our brains don’t fully develop until our mid-20s, the effect particularly on children cannot be overstated.
In fact, we may be able to see some of those effects now. UCDSU Welfare Officer Eoghan Mac Domhaill spoke to me about the impact of gambling in his home county of Monaghan where he feels it has become a big problem for young people.
‘I’d view it as a big problem among my own cohort of friends. It becomes a culture of talking. They talk about the odds and accumulators. I’ve never placed a bet in my life, yet I can tell you what an accumulator is.’ Incidentally according to Gamblers Anonymous, consistently talking about gambling is one of the signs that someone may have a gambling addiction.
Mac Domhaill also mentions how the framing of gambling is particularly concerning ‘I’ve stories of friends who come in after the weekend who talk about how much they won on an accumulator, but they’d never talk about how much they lost. There’s many of them who I know have lost a lot more than they’ve ever won. That causes a problem for them when they get into college because then they get to casinos and we’ve casinos at home so it just kind of stretches on because of that. It becomes that point where their social identity and all they talk about is gambling.’
The legal age to gamble in Ireland is 18 and it’s also illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to be in a betting shop. When asked when his friends started gambling, Mac Domhaill paints a slightly different picture. ‘It started in transition year and we got away with it because sometimes it was a small independent bookie or else the bookies didn’t care because they were getting money’.
If you think you or someone you know is suffering from a gambling addiction, the SU, in particular the Welfare Office can help. ‘Generally, I get in touch with head of counsellors because there are addiction counsellors and gambling is an addiction. You’d be referred onto a gambling addiction counsellor who would be external to UCD because none of the current set of counsellors from my knowledge are gambling addiction counsellors.’
At the time of writing there is currently no SU policy on gambling and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very difficult topic to design a policy around but the SU does remain conscientious as Mac Domhaill explains. ‘The SU from my knowledge, the closest thing that we do as a commercial entity we have never, and I would be strongly against collaborating with a bookie or an online gambling company to advertise with us. Whereas we advocate for safe use of drugs, when it comes to gambling a small win can lead to an addiction and maybe enough studies haven’t been done on it but from my own feeling I would be very uncomfortable with promoting gambling services.’
There is only so much an SU can do but given that gambling seems to be becoming more prevalent in our society, it’s something we need to be aware of. According to a recent report, 40% Irish students are in severe financial difficulty. If students feel desperate enough they could see gambling as a last ditch attempt to help make ends meet and that is a dangerous path to go down. Raising awareness is one thing but knowing the signs of gambling addiction can also help. Gamblers Anonymous Ireland have a self test questionnaire on their website and links to other helpful resources. SpunOut also have some material around gambling and addiction in general which is also very informative and helpful.
If you want to have a bet here and there, then you should but be aware dopamine hits are incredibly strong. Don’t underestimate them.
Rachel O’Neill – Editor