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How can we protect our ‘nation of gamblers’?

From betting websites decorating the shirts of most Premier League football teams to in-game loot boxes tempting money from the pockets of children, online gambling is everywhere. 

We are now a “nation of gamblers”, according to Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder of the first NHS gambling disorders and the first NHS gaming disorders clinics.

In the new episode of Tech Shock, we explore how the UK is facing up to an online gaming and gambling crisis – and why our understanding of the scale of risk and harm is so very limited. 

Bowden-Jones says: “We know exactly how much the gambling industry earns from all our gamblers. But what we don't have is a sound, independently-funded and large enough survey to understand exactly how many people experience harm from gambling, how many people have a diagnosis of gambling disorder [and] how many people are at risk.”

“All of us are failing the vulnerable”

A long-awaited review of the 2005 Gambling Act is due in 2021. But is it too little, too late? 

Bowden-Jones says we need a “completely radical new Gambling Act, fit for a digital age” to keep pace with a rapidly shifting digital market.

“All of us are failing the vulnerable because we could have done this review several years ago,” she says.

“Not just the vulnerable, but everybody. Age verification [is] absolutely vital. There are plenty of children and young people who are taking their parents’ [credit] cards and using those. And there is no way on earth that anyone is going to work out that it's a child behind that card. 

“There are things it is not possible to stop. But there are also plenty of ways of protecting consumers and children.”

“The gaming industry has borrowed techniques from gambling”

One way to protect children may be the classification of in-game loot boxes as gambling, with Parent Zone’s campaign leading to a government call for evidence in 2020. 

The National Centre for Gaming Disorders provides treatment for problem gamers living in England and Wales aged 13 and upwards. Its founder and director, Bowden-Jones, identifies these as one of many crossovers between gaming and gambling.

“Loot boxes have become extremely compulsive,” she says. “The fact that they tend to attract people who are more vulnerable in terms of their decision-making, regulating them makes perfect sense.

“One of the things we've observed is that the gaming industry has borrowed an awful lot of techniques from the gambling industry. But that's not just about the loot boxes. It's about the various techniques they use to keep people playing. 

“And you can see how a vulnerable young person could easily find themselves in a position where they were no longer in control of that gaming. Is that right?”

“The suffering of children is unspeakable”

Bowden-Jones also suggests that limits on spending – and checks to make sure customers can really afford their stakes – should also be a focus of the Gambling Act review. Such measures are being explored in other countries. 

She says: “Often there are very big consequences at family level – with stress, with individual depression, anxiety, guilt, breakdown of relationships of marriages… The suffering of the children is unspeakable.

“But none of this should have happened and all of it could have been avoided with the affordability checks in place. 

“And I'm very well aware that Austria and Germany are moving towards a much more protective measure approach exactly because of this.”

To hear the full discussion, listen to
the new episode of Tech Shock: “Addicted!”

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