Holland Casino wants to introduce online gambling games in 2014. Online gambling is currently banned in the Netherlands, but the state-owned company is expecting the legislation to be amended sometime this year. ‘There will be an inevitable rise in the number of gambling addicts’, claims Arie Dijkstra, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Groningen. ‘So it’s very important to start considering how to monitor and therefore reduce the undesirable effects.’
As a result of the current ban, online gambling operates in a circuit that few people come into contact with’, says Dijkstra. Legalizing online gambling will suddenly lower the threshold considerably. People who have never been in a position to place a bet will suddenly be brought into contact with gambling, for example because it will soon be advertised or because people will be talking about it more.
The situation will then be the same as with drugs. Most people have never tried hard drugs, because they do not come into contact with them. Dijkstra: ‘If it’s quite normal to use hard drugs, and your friends are doing it too, it’s much more likely that you’ll try them too. And you might turn out to be particularly susceptible to them. It is probable that the same thing happens with online gambling sites. They will undoubtedly be beautifully designed to appeal to people, so that those who come into contact with them – thanks to the easy accessibility – will be more likely to give it a try. This also applies to people who, normally speaking, wouldn’t go to a casino.’
The danger with online gambling is that the social controls disappear completely, argues Dijkstra. ‘There are no restrictions for someone sitting at the computer alone at home. If he decides to place a bet, there is no social control. In a regular casino there are always people who notice you. That’s much less the case online. By legalizing online gambling you’re tapping into a new target group.’
‘Obviously, that needn’t be a problem. But we can safely conclude that, as the number of people gambling increases, so too does the risk that more people will become addicted. Or, in any case, they will start gambling in a way that isn’t good for them. There are many vulnerable people in the new target group.’
Holland Casino is state-owned and directly supervised by the government. Casinos have to comply with stringent regulations that are designed to prevent gambling addiction. But how can the government regulate online gambling? Dijkstra: ‘In a regular casino, visitors are monitored. If someone loses, places bets that are too high, and keeps coming back and losing, the casino can refuse admission to that person. In principle, a monitoring system like this is also possible via the internet, for example by integrating a calculation system in the website that issues a warning to players who continually lose. Ultimately, the system could also deny the person access to the website.’
A more personal form of control is also possible, explains Dijkstra. ‘One possibility is to monitor visitors who have lost more than 1000 euros. An expert could analyse a list of this specific group of visitors, looking at each individual’s gambling history to see whether there are any patterns in their gambling behaviour. The gambler in question could then be issued with specific warnings, or even be refused access to the website.’
Another important way to prevent gambling addiction is to inform visitors to the gambling site about the risk of addiction. Dijkstra: ‘People should be informed that there is a risk they could become addicted, and the signs of addiction should be explained. This should go a step further, by offering a solution. This could be done with the following message: “If you think you might be addicted, take this test”. Or refer gamblers to a website with an anti-addiction course. The government can draw up regulations for each of these.’
Dijkstra believes that, before the government actually goes ahead with legalizing online gambling, it is important to find out how serious the problem of addiction could become. ‘First, extensive information should be gathered, for example during a trial year. At the moment it’s still very difficult to estimate the risk, which means that it’s difficult to begin making decisions about how to prevent addiction problems due to online gambling.’
Prof. Arie Dijkstra (Hoogeveen, 1961) is professor of the Social Psychology of Health and Illness at the University of Groningen and is specialized in addiction. He has published on this topic in renowned journals such as Addiction and Health Psychology.
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