Home » Is online betting worth the addictive risks? – The Hub

Is online betting worth the addictive risks? – The Hub

On Seinfeld, Jerry’s neighbour, Cosmo Kramer, overhears a gambling tip on the subway, runs to an off-track betting dive, slaps down a $600 30-1 bet, and wins $18,000. A thug in a trench coat then beats Kramer up until an undercover cop posing as a blind violist saves him. 

These days, with the rapid expansion of legalized online gambling across North America, Kramer-style bettors can avoid the drama and simply lose all their money while loafing in bed. We are now betting on AI-enhanced digital thoroughbreds, and the state is the betting parlour, chief enforcer, and cop. iGaming Ontario, a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), seeks to protect consumers and ensure gaming revenues stay in the provincial treasury.

How on earth did we get here? In April 2022, when Ontario legalized online gaming, mental health advocates and addiction researchers were aghast. And understandably so. Nowhere in the Registrar’s Standards for Internet Gaming could I find a reference to the word “addiction” (“Check if your spelling is correct, or try removing filters,” the site instructs me). Last January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was warned by the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation that the government did not fulfill its legal duty to consult Indigenous governments regarding the rollout of iGaming, leaving the framework open to a potential constitutional challenge. 

Whatever the addiction or legal risks, iGaming is basking in popularity as new jurisdictions move to legalize online betting, where investors can wager on the future outcome of a game or event. In March 2023, Grand View Research predicted the global online gambling market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.7 percent from 2023 to 2030 to reach $153.6 billion USD by 2030. From April 2023 to March 2024 alone, iGaming wagers in Ontario totalled nearly $18 billion CAD. 

It’s no wonder Alberta is exploring how to unseat Ontario as the iGaming capital of Canada; in the words of Dale Nally, Minister of Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction, “Alberta can be a leading hub for iGaming, with a strong emphasis on openness and a free market.” But to be open about online betting demands honesty about its addictive threat.

What does the science say about iGaming and addiction risk? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies mental disorders, standardizes diagnoses, and aids in research as well as providing guidelines for evidence-based treatment. The DSM considers iGaming disorder (IGD) to be an excessive mode of Internet gaming in which individuals with IGD experience exhibit many cognitive and behavioural symptoms, such as gradual loss of control over gaming, tolerance, and withdrawal.

After reviewing 53 studies conducted in 17 countries between 2009 and 2019, Matthew Stevens and colleagues at The University of Adelaide put the worldwide prevalence of IGD at 3 percent. Other studies put the prevalence of IGD at least double that. The variability in this prevalence depends on how you measure IGD—yet another reason it requires much greater scrutiny. Some of the most frequently reported health-related associations with IGD are depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, and ADHD.

iGaming is not innovative. There is no problem solved, and there is no value creation. iGaming is a schlock-like video of slots, table games, sports betting, and the “casino experience.” It’s an industry built around how to maximize surges of dopamine in the brain.

The brain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is the pathway for addiction. Pleasure elicits dopamine flow and once an activity is associated with dopamine release, that activity is pursued again and again. Withdrawal from the activity produces a dopamine low which triggers search and pursuit of anything that will fill that void. Gambling begets gambling.

Gambling losses trigger misery, debt, and often jail time—and, sometimes, tragically, suicide. The four key principles of iGaming Ontario are safer choice, game integrity and fairness, regulatory oversight, and consumer protection. I suggest a fifth: fighting addiction, which is already a public health crisis in Canada. The potential horrors unleashed by iGaming in Ontario and the rest of Canada—on families and individuals, and on our distressed health system—should be monitored by an independent review board. If the data show iGaming to be the addiction quicksand that I predict it to be, it should shutter. Will iGaming Ontario take that bet? If not, why not?