Early warning signs of gambling addiction

03 July 2018

Interview with

Dr Raian Ali - Bournemouth University

Gambling is recognised as a serious addiction. For the 2018 World Cup, the amount of money spent on gambling is expected to hit £2.5 billion in the UK, and over 400,000 of us are identified as problem gamblers. People are also concerned with the rise of problematic use of social media and video games. But unlike substances such as nicotine or heroin, the very same mechanisms that are used to make online platforms so addictive could be used to warn people that they are showing signs of becoming addicted and help them to regulate their use. At the moment this is not happening though. Georgia spoke to Raian Ali, from the the Digital Addiction Research Group at Bournemouth University...

Raian - Our main argument or main statement is that technology is more intelligent than alcohol and tobacco because it can measure the usage, it can sense when you could be using them in an addictive style or problematic style and can show you a message, make you more informed about that usage.

Georgia - What kind of techniques then are games and social media using to try and keep people coming?

Raian - Say, for example, SnapChat as a social media: you have events that are only temporarily available, so you have to go check SnapChat otherwise you wouldn’t get access to that snaps. That’s called “scarcity”, so it’s only available for a limited amount and a limited period of time. There are other techniques like reciprocity. If you do something the social network will reward you for that; for example if you interact via the social networks, the social network will know more about you and will customise the content to you to fit your interests. Social media in general: let's say for users, there is the need of people to belong as well - to be a member of a group. So basically, they process their data, they know their interests and they show them interesting news in a way - they personalise that.

Georgia - Is this something to do with like when you get a notification that gives you a little dopamine hit?

Raian - The pull to refresh, which is a feature found in most of the digital media nowadays, especially when you are using a mobile phone, is in a way using a gambling technique like when you have the roulette thing. And you just press a button and you wait for the roulette and then after that you may win and you may lose. So that sort of surprise element, that sort of uncertainty and the reward which may come after that is, in a way, similar to gambling, which is a technique now used in social media somehow.

Georgia - Right. So you spin the wheel, you might get a friend request (yah) or you might get nothing?

Raian - Exactly. And there is also a common rule on social media now that no news is not good news, so social media all the time strive to show you something. Whenever you go there you see a notification, you see something new even if it is not that relevant to you. Because people would like to see something there even if it is irrelevant.

Georgia - Let’s talk about gambling because it’s the World Cup at the moment so a lot of people have sometimes harmless bets on matches, but for other people this is a very very serious problem. So how much gambling is there and how does that become an addiction?

Raian - I think for the online gambling there’s an interesting fact now that these sites know a lot about people, so they know exactly what a person is doing there. They collect a lot of data about them, they personalise offers to them, and they also make profiles for them. So likely the gambling sites are more intelligent than the traditional gambling and they use AI techniques - artificial intelligence techniques to protect a gambler’s behaviour. That could exacerbate the problem of gambling addiction. What we are saying is that these data they collect about people to protect their gambling behaviour and to customise offers to them or promotion to them can be equally useful for responsible gambling. However, currently, these data are not being made available for responsible gambling application software, they are only being used for marketing and personalisation.

Georgia - So this data that’s coming in from people gambling away online could be used to help people stop, but at the moment it’s being used to keep people there?

Raian - Absolutely. To give you a metaphor: if somebody’s driving a car and overspeeding, it doesn’t make sense to tell them about their behaviour after the make the accident. So what we are advocating is that these gambling sites should stream this data in real time, in timely fashion to their mentor, to another software, to their therapist so that they can take action before the problem gambling happens - before the addiction happens.

Georgia - Where’s the incentive, other than just the desire to bring about social good, but where’s the incentive for gambling companies to do this because if people stop gambling they lose money?

Raian - There are a lot of court cases now about gambling companies failing to practice their duty of care. There are fines imposed on them because they fail to detect addictive gamblers. It’s for the benefit of both society and the gambling company to detect those problematic cases. And the majority of gamblers are not really problem gamblers so the profit of the company wouldn’t be hugely affected by detecting problem gamblers in the early stages and keep the gambling to an acceptable level.

Georgia - In terms of duty of care, gambling comes under a different law from a video game, but recently a trend in video games is to have what’s called these “microtransactions.” So how is that changing the landscape of how you see people’s video game use?

Raian - There are hypothesis whether there is a transitional relationship between video gaming and gambling. And whether people who play virtual gambling, like with virtual points and so on, can become gamblers. There isn’t a lot of evidence of that transitional relation and I think the gambling authorities are putting this under investigation now to see whether normalising gambling through video games can lead to actual gambling. There isn’t a lot of evidence about that.

Georgia - Something I’ve heard about, these things called loot boxes. These are things you often pay real money for and get a sort of mystery item or set of items within a game, so would that not qualify as actual gambling?

Raian - Personally, I think that raises a lot of ethical issues. Whether it is gambling or not can be debated. But it’s like pushing the kids basically to push their parents to pay money to buy the next release of the game. That raises a lot of ethical issues of the tech company...


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