by: Christine Reilly | Sep 18, 2010
The “Room for Debate” section of The New York Times recently posed the question,“Should Internet gambling be legalized?” Several respondents identified an increase in gambling addiction as the probable outcome if Congress lifts the current ban on online gambling in the United States (“Should Internet Gambling,” 2010; Chan, 2010). The belief that the easy access and social isolation of Internet gambling make it an especially risky behavior has become conventional wisdom. However, the question remains: are these concerns based on speculation or scientific research? Missing from The New York Times debate were the perspectives of scientists currently investigating the behaviors of Internet gamblers. A recent article in Addiction Research and Theory by Howard J. Shaffer and colleagues, “Toward a Paradigm Shift in Internet Gambling Research,” offers a comprehensive look at the research conducted to date, including summaries of their own investigations of the gambling patterns of customers of bwin, one of Europe’s largest online gambling companies (Shaffer et al., 2010).
According to this article, a search of the peer-reviewed scientific literature found only 30 articles focused primarily on Internet gambling, with two-thirds being commentaries and one-third being surveys of Internet gamblers. The surveys provide limited value because they did not use representative samples. Furthermore, the data collected from the research subjects were based on self-reports of past behavior, a common approach in social science research but one that can be biased by poor memory and other factors. In short, the research base for understanding Internet gambling is limited (Shaffer et al., 2010).
Shaffer and colleagues have pioneered new methods for studying online gambling by virtue of their access to the actual wagering transactions of 40,000 online gamblers, including every keystroke of every person that subscribes to the bwin website. Using this data reflecting actual gambling patterns, rather than relying on self-report, provides “objective detailed information about betting behavior, and the conditions under which gamblers place wagers” (Shaffer et al., 2010, p. 277).
The analysis of the bwin data has produced seven peer-reviewed publications that contradict the notion that Internet gambling breeds excessive and problematic gambling (Broda et al., 2008; LaBrie et al., 2007, 2008; LaPlante et al., 2008, 2009; Nelson et al., 2008; Xuan & Shaffer, 2009). For example, one study found that the majority of bwin subscribers engage in moderate sports betting, with the median-level player making 2.5 sports bets of 4 euros (or approximately $5.25 in U.S. dollars) every fourth day (LaBrie, et al., 2007).
A similar investigation of 4,222 subscribers playing casino games online (for example, slots and video poker) determined that the median betting behavior was to play casino games once every two weeks during a period of nine months. Subscribers lost a median of 5.5 percent of total monies wagered. The researchers identified a group of heavily involved bettors whose activity exceeded that of 95 percent of the sample. The findings suggest that time spent gambling might be a better flag for disordered gambling than money lost (LaBrie et al., 2008).
The researchers also found moderate gambling behaviors in a study of Internet poker players (LaPlante et al., 2008). As players experienced more losses, they moderated their gambling, as measured by decreases in the duration of gambling sessions, the total number of gambling sessions and the total amount of money wagered. According to the authors, this finding suggests that the majority of individuals curbed their gambling based on their wins and losses – exhibiting what might be considered rational betting behavior: “This suggests that, at the population level, losing discourages ongoing play and winning encourages continuing play” (LaPlante et al., 2008, p. 715.)
The researchers also identified trends of more excessive gambling behavior but only in a small minority of gamblers. One investigation examined the patterns of 226 subscribers who closed their bwin accounts because of problems with their gambling behaviors (Xuan & Shaffer, 2009). Compared to the control group without problems, the bettors who self-identified as problem gamblers exhibited more signs of excessive gambling behavior, such as increasing the amount of wagers prior to the closure of their accounts, than the control group. Surprisingly, however, they did not chase longer odds, instead making wagers that were more conservative than the control group. This finding challenges the commonly held belief that disordered gamblers seek “long odds” and “chase their losses.”
For those interested in the potential impact of legalized Internet gambling in the U.S., it is important to note that, despite the international reach of bwin, with subscribers in 80 countries, the company does not accept subscribers from the U.S., and, therefore, the applicability of these findings to the U.S. market might be questioned.
Richard LaBrie, Ed.D., associate director of data analysis at the Division on Addictions at Cambridge Health Alliance, will discuss the findings from the bwin studies at the annual NCRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction this November. For details, download the NCRG Conference 2010 Brochure. To register for the conference, visit the Conference link on the NCRG website.
Researchers should note that several datasets and codebooks from the studies mentioned above are available through The Transparency Project, an initiative of the Division on Addictions at Cambridge Health Alliance.
Broda, A., Laplante, D. A., Nelson, S. E., Labrie, R. A., Bosworth, L. B., & Shaffer, H. J. (2008). Virtual harm reduction efforts for Internet gambling: Effects of deposit limits on actual Internet sports gambling behavior. Harm Reduction Journal, 5, 27.
Chan, S. (2010, July 28). Congress Rethinks its Ban on Internet Gambling. The New York Times, fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/29/us/politics/29gamble.html?_r=1
LaBrie, R. A., Kaplan, S. A., Laplante, D. A., Nelson, S. E., & Shaffer, H. J. (2008).Inside the virtual casino: A prospective longitudinal study of actual 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(3), 347-362
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(3), 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, 2399-2414.
Nelson, S. E., LaPlante, D. A., Peller, A. J., Schumann, A., LaBrie, R. A., & Shaffer, H. J. (2008). Real limits in the virtual world: Self-limiting behavior of Internet gamblers.Journal of Gambling Studies, 24(4), 463-477.
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 & Theory, 18(3), 270-283.
Should Internet Gambling be Legalized? (2010, July 29). The New York Times, fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/7/29/should-internet-gambling-be-legalized
Xuan, Z., & 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(2), 239-252.