We see the torso and legs of a young person, possibly male or gender-neutral, sitting on a bed and playing video games.

As all but essential workers have stayed largely at home since mid-March, the need for distractions has risen. Hop on the internet and you’ll find many how-to articles for surviving social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Most recommend checking items off your bucket list–or at the very least, cleaning and organizing your home. Stress levels are high, however, due to fears about COVID-19; loss of income and structure; grieving over the loss of black lives; and anger at racial inequities. The increased anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other mental health symptoms being experienced throughout the U.S. are unsurprising: as is the fact that many are turning to compulsive or addictive behaviors to cope.

The Gamblification of Pastimes

Many factors contribute to gambling trending near the top of those coping behaviors. The first is that online gambling is accessible to anyone with internet access. Can’t leave the house? No problem. Additionally, sports betting was legalized in Pennsylvania in late 2017, and is continuing to explode, as far as revenues, participation, and opportunities. There is even debate about making betting on high school sporting events legal. Another popular hobby that now includes gambling-like experiences is video gaming. Intra-game features reminiscent of gambling include virtual casinos that characters can enter; loot boxes that players pay to open, containing virtual items such as clothing or weapons, and which range in value; “pay-to-play” options that unlock clues and higher game levels; and even a constant stream of true gambling ads popping up.

While none of the above have been defined as gambling, they prime players for future gambling by normalizing betting, and prime the brain for future compulsiveness by linking a rush of feel-good chemicals to random events. Gambling is blending into video gaming, and vice versa, making their products more habit-forming for those with risk factors.

Signs of Vulnerability

While most people can gamble or play video games* without becoming addicted, there are risk factors for developing a problem, which include, but are not limited to, these traits.

  • Tendency for boredom
  • Sensation-seeking
  • Impulsivity
  • Loneliness
  • Mental health disorders & symptoms such as ADHD, anxiety, social phobia, and depression
  • Male gender
  • Extreme shyness

A risk factor for all types of addiction is genetics, or family history. Many different genes contribute to developing addiction and compulsive behaviors, and having relatives with substance use or gambling disorders may put people at higher risk for problem gaming.

Signs of Trouble

If you or someone you know have risk factors for compulsive gaming or gambling, there are symptoms to look out for. Some are general to addiction:

  • Neglecting family, work or school
  • Loss of reliability
  • Increased levels of anxiety or depression
  • Lies or evasiveness around time and money
  • Secretive, controlling family finances
  • Lying about how much time spent
  • Decrease in grades or interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Picking fights more often at home or school

Other symptoms are specific to gambling or gaming:

  • Easily angered when play is interrupted
  • Fatigue, migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Poor hygiene
  • Playing or gambling on unregulated or offshore sites
  • Setting up multiple bank accounts
  • Using cryptocurrencies
  • Consumed with online reputation or identity
  • Increased pride and ego

Caring for Self and Others

Compass Mark takes a neutral position on video games and on gambling when of legal age. Both have become part of our culture, and don’t cause harm to everyone, or even the majority.** The increase in life stressors throughout the spring of 2020, however, have given us more to be anxious about, and likely more time on our hands to worry. If you’re a caregiver, talk to your children about gaming, and ask if they’ve noticed opportunities to gamble within their games. Read about the blending of gaming and gambling, and recognize that most people struggle with overusing technology. Do you and your kids have that in common?

If the problem has progressed, there is counseling available in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, as well as support groups for people with disordered gambling and their loved ones. Call or email us for guidance, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. It’s confidential, and we’ll spend time putting together a plan of action for you and your family. Everyone deserves a rich, full, life–free of compulsions and addictive disorders.

717.299.2831 / info@compassmark.org

*Internet gaming disorder, also referred to as video game addiction, is not an official behavioral health disorder in the DSM-5, but was labeled a condition for further study in 2013.
** Around 3% of adults and 6% of kids age 18 and under meet the criteria for gambling disorder. Early research has found that .6% to 11.9% of adolescents are “problematic video gamers”.