Gambling can become pathological (not “addicting,” a loaded term that has its own history and meaning directly connected to a substance or alcohol), as researchers have long known. In fact, it’s been in the diagnostic bible for mental health professionals, the DSM, for decades — it’s called pathological gambling disorder, and it doesn’t differentiate where the gambling takes place (online or off).
In fact, if you go back to 1996, you’ll discover that the creators of “Internet addiction disorder” simply took the symptoms for pathological gambling, renamed it, and asked people who already identified themselves as having some sort of problem with online use if they had this “new” disorder. Ask someone who shops “too much” if they have a “shopping disorder,” and they’ll more than likely say, “Yes, why, in fact I do!” However, this isn’t how social scientists research and verify new disorders.
So I was sad to see the New York Times health blog repeat this self-selection error in a folksy anecdotal story about journalist Martha Frankel (A Family Pastime Turns Addictive Online) who ran into some serious problems with gambling online. Ms. Frankel said she was a fine gambler in real-life, but when she tried to do it online, she became “addicted” to it and couldn’t stop herself from racking up $70,000 in losses.
Gambling online can be just as pathological as in real life. Some might argue it is more so, since the social cues and physical reminders of your wins or losses (the casino chips) that would perhaps otherwise limit your losses are far removed. But there’s no empirical research to say that online gambling is worse or better than real life gambling.
Personal stories like Ms. Frankel’s provide color and flavor about the real devastation gambling can wreak:
The computer is addictive. There is something in its nature. From the minute I lost online I had this attitude of “they owe me 300 bucks.” Then the next day they owed me $600. I could never get past that. I was forever trying to make up what they owed me. At a casino I didn’t think like that. I’m not a chaser. If it’s not my day I’m happy to do something else. Online I couldn’t stop that thing of wanting to beat them. At a casino there is a very human element — someone is slow, someone says something funny, the dealer is a jerk. Online there is none of that. It’s a computer generating hand after hand after hand very quickly.
Yes, and that’s the way video games have always been, since the 1970s. How many years has Massachusetts had Keno? I mean, that’s what computers do, I’m not sure why anyone should be surprised by this insight.
But there’s no other perspective — you know, like what does the research show? — to the story, so it seems to be feeding the “well” of misinformation rather than providing a balanced view of this issue.
For the record, there have been no large-scale clinical studies that show that the computer is any more “addicting” than television was in the 1960s, than the radio was in the 1930s, or that reading books ever was. It is a new technology, and because it’s something new, we have to learn how it “fits in” with our existing life, our existing ability for time management.
People mistakenly believe that we can just incorporate any new technology into our lives and not have a learning curve. A part of that learning curve is inevitably being fascinated and spending an inordinate amount of time with our new technology. I hypothesize that the older the person, the more of an issue this could be (which isn’t to say there aren’t young people who grapple with these problems, just that the incidence is likely higher in older people who have had less exposure to the new technology).
Yes, gambling becomes a problem in a small minority of people (and I have issues with gambling in the first place, but don’t get me started on that political rant). It’s usually attributed to an impulse control issue, as well as time management issues, and is readily treated by an experienced cognitive behavioral therapist. Demonizing technology seems to serve no real purpose, other than to appeal to people who feel they too have this problem, or to overly simplify an otherwise complex issue.