Many people are able to gamble harmlessly for fun. However, some will develop problems serious enough to impact their life.
A small percentage will struggle with pathological gambling, the most serious form of this type of addiction, which can cause long-lasting emotional, physical and financial consequences.
Like substance abuse, problem gambling requires addiction treatment. But is free play gambling online as potentially harmful as betting with real money?
Free play online gambling
Gambling over the internet is legal in Nevada, and a number of other states are expected to legalize it in the coming years. In addition, gamblers have access to offshore gaming sites that allow American players to bet on everything from games of chance to poker. The gamblers play by using real money from their electronic bank account or a credit card.
In states in which online gambling is still illegal, some casinos offer “free play” internet gambling. This allows them to connect with customers while staying on the right side of the law. Their marketing strategy is aimed at pulling gamblers into their casino locations. It also works to build a customer base primed to play that casino’s real money internet games when online gambling is legalized in its state. Web sites operating from states and countries with legalized online gambling advertise free play gambling as a “practice mode.” Gamblers can use it to practice, learn, and try internet gambling without risk.
Online casinos offer free play mode for most games, including blackjack, roulette, craps, slots and video poker. The player is given an account with pretend money he or she can use to make bets.
Free play isn’t risk-free
Gambling on the internet is still a relatively new subject when it comes to the mental health field and addiction treatment. However, an increasing number of research projects have demonstrated that online gambling has the potential to trigger addiction in some people — and some of that risk may be linked to free play or demo modes.
Higher Wagers: Playing in practice mode may spur higher bets when gamblers move onto real money play. A study of players 18-24, by the University of Adelaide, found that those who played in free play mode first bet significantly higher amounts when they later gambled for real money.
Inflated Payouts: Part of the danger with demo gambling is that some casinos provide different payouts in these modes than they do in real money games. For example, a study of almost 120 online gambling sites found that 39% of them showed higher winnings in demo mode than in games using real money. Inflated payouts can give the gambler the false perception that he or she has a better chance of winning in actual games.
Free play gambling and children
It’s common for children or teens to play games on a tablet or smartphone. While many games are harmless, free play gambling apps have the potential to prime youth for addiction. Game software designers say their products are intended only for adults, yet few of them offer comprehensive checks to verify a player’s age. This early attraction to gambling can be dangerous. Research suggests that children who gamble early in life have a higher risk of developing the most serious gambling problems and requiring addiction treatment.
The ability of kids to access practice mode gambling presents an additional problem. This is because they often have misperceptions about gambling that make it hard for them to make wise decisions about playing. For instance, research has demonstrated that youth have unreasonable beliefs about gambling, including the tendency to believe that they can learn to “control” the game to affect outcome. Betting in free play mode, then, can play into children’s belief that they can develop skills that allow them to win, even though they are playing a game of chance.
Preventing online gambling
If you’re concerned about your child getting involved in online gambling, there are several things you can do:
- Block gambling sites. Invest in anti-gambling website software that blocks the sites from devices like computers or tablets. As with any software, always ensure the manufacturer is a trusted company before downloading anything onto your computer.
- Talk to your children about gambling. As a parent or caregiver you may have already spoken to your kids about substance abuse; it’s time to add gambling addiction to the conversation as well. Let them know that gambling is illegal for underage kids and that excessive gambling can cause problems ranging from the inability to pay back student loans to a higher risk of suicide.
- Remove access to bank accounts and credit/debit cards. Gambling websites may use free play mode to entice the gambler to wager for real money, which is transferred electronically via bank or credit/debit accounts. Cutting access to these accounts may not completely stop the behavior, but it will make it harder for the gambler to play online.
Treating online gambling addiction
Do you gamble when you don’t have money? Lie about time spent betting online or at casinos? Miss work or school to gamble? You may already have a problem.
Like substance abuse, problem gambling can be addressed by enrolling in an addiction treatment facility. Locate a center in which counselors specialize in recovery from gambling addiction. These professionals will help you analyze the emotions and actions that play a role in the behavior and teach you to deal with them in a healthier way.
Learning how to deal with the urge to gamble will be a significant part of recovery. As an addict, you will not be able to gamble safely again. However, you can use a variety of techniques to resist urges. Your addiction team may recommend giving up relationships with people who enable gambling, getting rid of credit cards that allow you to accrue gambling debt, and finding other ways to fill your time.
Since you cannot gamble safely online or offline as an addict, you should also place yourself on voluntary self-exclusion lists. When you put yourself on these state-operated lists, you will be banned from all legal gaming activities, like playing at casinos or accepting comps and services, at licensed facilities in a particular state.
Free play gambling has the potential to prime you or a loved one for a compulsive gambling addiction that affects everything from maintaining relationships to holding a job. If you suspect a problem has already taken hold, reach out to an addiction treatment center for help and healing.