A game or two of online poker. An hour spent playing slots online, followed by another hour and another. It’s just harmless fun, right?
While many people visit Internet casinos or poker rooms for occasional entertainment and play responsibly, the pastime can quickly turn into a serious problem for others. An addiction to online gambling can have serious consequences, including job loss, plummeting grades, ruined credit and damaged relationships. In fact, about 5% of people who gamble online will develop an addiction.
Why is online gambling so addictive?
Playing online slots or Texas Hold ‘Em is not the same as playing a video game or gambling in a real-life casino. Online gambling is particularly addictive for many reasons:
- Online gambling stimulates the brain, creating a powerful “high.” The brain of someone with an addiction is stimulated by pleasurable activities. In the most familiar example, a drug user takes a substance to experience a chemical high. However, in online gambling addiction the “high” of winning produces similar pleasurable feelings. Playing online — whether it’s poker or slots — satisfies that need, even though you’re not physically ingesting a substance.
- Online gambling is convenient and anonymous. Tech tools, like iPads and smartphones, are becoming an indispensable part of life for all of us. However, that technology also makes internet gambling especially dangerous. Instead of noticeably disappearing from home or work for several days to visit a casino, you can gamble online any time, any place, and in complete anonymity. You could play online slots from a smartphone while sitting at your cubicle at work or waiting for your child to finish soccer practice.
- Online gambling requires no cash. When it comes to gambling in a face-to-face environment, at some point there is a physical exchange of money — whether it’s handing the cashier your credit card or plugging quarters into a slot machine. In the online world, websites operate by connecting directly to your credit card or bank account. Since there’s no physical exchange, it can be harder for you to grasp just how much money you’re losing. The numbers on the screen, in essence, seem more like pretend money than the real thing.
- Online gambling has no age barrier. Research shows that people who gamble as children or teens tend to develop the most serious gambling addictions as adults. Anyone who’s visited an internet gambling site knows they can be flashy places — the virtual equivalent of an opulent casino. But website designers also incorporate many of the same elements as popular video games, making them very attractive to young players. What’s more, websites are unable to verify the player’s age and thus can’t prevent underage kids from gambling illegally.
Just like face-to-face gambling, the online variety will impact every facet of your life. It can quickly drain your finances, leaving you without the funds to pay everything from your mortgage to student loans; it can destroy your most important relationships; and it can fill your life with desperation, uncertainty and anxiety.
What are the warning signs?
Excessive gambling over the web is often called the “hidden addiction.” Why? Because, unlike an addiction to alcohol or drugs, there are often few visible warning signs of a problem. However, the following red flags may indicate that you (or a loved one) have an online gambling problem:
- Neglecting daily responsibilities (work, school, family) to play online
- Using internet gambling to numb or avoid negative feelings such as anxiety, loneliness, or depression
- Lying about time spent playing online poker, slots, etc.
- Becoming moody when online access is not available or denied
- Having mood swings based on whether you’re winning or losing (e.g. you feel exhilarated when winning and dejected when losing)
- Borrowing money to “win back” your previous gambling losses
- Taking early withdrawals from your retirement accounts or cashing in insurance policies
- Repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop your gambling behavior
- Stealing money from family or friends, or engaging in other types of criminal behavior to support your online gambling habit
- Thinking about or attempting suicide because of the stress and consequences of an internet gambling problem
Is there treatment?
Like all addictions, an online gambling addiction is a very real condition. The consequences can be so serious that, according to one survey, more than 20% of callers to a gambling help hotline said they’d attempted suicide because of their gambling behavior. It’s not enough to simply turn off the computer or install software that blocks gambling sites.
If you have an online gambling addiction, you need treatment from professionals who are trained to help you manage it. Treatment may involve a variety of methods, such as counseling, to help you build a path towards recovery. Many facilities offer outpatient or residential treatment options. To find online gambling addiction treatment resources, always look for addiction specialists and facilities that are experienced in treating this particular disorder.
Support networks are another powerful tool to help those with an online gambling addiction. For example, you might attend regular meetings with a Gamblers Anonymous group as part of your recovery. Support groups allow members to share strengths and experiences with each other, which can help reduce the urge to play again. Since online gambling is a disorder that affects the whole family, your loved ones should consider attending therapy or a family-oriented support group.
Problem gambling is a progressive disorder that will not get better on its own — no matter how much you want to stop. Get the help you need today to stop your gambling behavior by working with an addiction specialist. No matter how bleak your addiction may seem, there is hope for a successful recovery.