Researchers Try Online Solutions for Online Gambling Problems

27 Sep 2020

Dr. Mark Griffiths explains responsible gambling tools – how small interventions can influence problematic user behavior for the good.

STI Experts

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioral Addiction at Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, was a keynote speaker at the IV Congress on Behavioral Addictions and Dual Pathology. The organizers hope that authorities will focus on the problem of gambling addiction as a socio-sanitary problem, recognizing its potential to reveal a dual pathology and treating the underlying psychological issue rather than simply restricting the problematic behavior.

“Dual pathology in behavioral addictions is the rule, not the exception,” according to the psychiatrist Dr. Francisco Ferre Navarrette, who served as president of the event’s organizing committee for the 2020 edition. The good news is that recognizing this fact opens up new angles of treatment, he added.  

Among behavioral addictions (those behaviors that do not involve the use of a psychoactive substance), gambling was the first to be recognized by the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as an addiction. Griffiths, a psychologist, is a leader in the field, and was invited to address non-pharmacological therapeutic options. His presentation, “Evaluating the Efficacy of Responsible Gambling Tools,” explained various attempts to intervene in gambling behavior before it gets out of control.

Some of the responsible gambling (RG) tools currently in use are: behavioral analytic tools used to identify problem gamblers; personalized messaging systems for those who display at-risk gambling behavior; player cards and bibliometric ID measures; rewarding players for engaging in responsible practices; and various online techniques to assist problem gamblers. There are also a wide range of online responsible gambling tools including mandatory play breaks, limit setting, pop-up messages, personalized messages, behavioral tracking tools, and temporary self-exclusion.

All of the studies Griffiths has carried out evaluating responsible gambling tools have been with Dr. Michael Auer and they have all been ‘real world’ studies with real gamblers, on real gambling sites, in real time. Limit-setting can be voluntary or mandatory (depending upon the operator and/or the regulator) and can involve both time and/or spending limits.  In one study, Griffiths found that money spending limits helped those who gambled most intensely on casino and lottery games, whereas time limits were of most help to poker players who gambled most intensely. In another study, personalized messaging reminding gamblers when they had reached 80% of the maximum amount of money they could afford to lose in a month was shown to significantly reduce total expenditure in all but the top 10% of the most intense gamblers.

Pop-up messaging has been tested in a few ways. After a simple reminder, results of one study indicated that demonstrably more gamblers ceased their gambling session following the viewing of a pop-up message after 1,000 consecutive gambles on an online slot machine game compared to those who had not viewed a pop-up message, although the overall percentage of sessions that were terminated by the gambler was less than 1%. To try to increase the number of intensive gamblers who stopped after prolonged play, a follow-up study used a new ‘enhanced’ pop-up message that invited players to self-appraise their behavior, provided normative feedback, addressed cognitive misbeliefs commonly found among gamblers, and provided a recommendation to set limits. The enhanced message resulted in twice as many people immediately terminating their session compared to the simple message, but was still relatively ineffective in curtailing intensive gambling sessions (approximately 1.4% of sessions were terminated after the enhanced message compared to 0.7% terminated sessions with the simple message). 

Other studies by Griffiths have shown that bespoke personalized messages based on gamblers’ actual playing behavior significantly decreases the amount of money spent by gamblers. However, a study examining the efficacy of a 90-second mandatory play break found that overall expenditure in the following session was no different from those that had no play break. He also said that in an as yet unpublished study, a 15-minute play break appeared to have the desired effect of reducing gambling expenditure compared to 90-second and five-minute play breaks.

Overall, while the efficacy of RG tools is just beginning to be evaluated, Griffiths said, “evidence suggests that limit setting brings benefits to both players and the operator, and providing feedback to players based on their playing behavior has great potential in helping players gamble more responsibly.”