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UK Online gambling Research: twice as many gaming accounts belong to customers in most deprived areas

The Patterns of Play report – carried out by researchers from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and Professor David Forrest and Professor Ian McHale (University of Liverpool) – is the first study of its kind and was commissioned by GambleAware to better understand online gambling behaviour in Great Britain. Data from 139,152 online gambling accounts was provided by seven major operators between July 2018 and June 2019. 

The research team analysed data from both online gaming accounts (bingo, live and virtual casino games, poker, slots) as well as online betting (e.g. sports events).

Overall, the report shows that whilst betting (primarily on sports such as football and horse racing) was most popular in terms of numbers participating, gaming was associated with a higher probability of incurring heavy losses, and, of those who spent the most, a higher proportion had addresses in the most deprived neighbourhoods.

Professor Forrest, Professor of Economics at the University of Liverpool who led on analysis of the account data, said: “This study offers us a globally unprecedented opportunity to understand the online gambling landscape. In contrast to betting, we see that participation and customer losses in gaming were concentrated in more deprived areas and a higher proportion of customers had losses in the thousands of pounds over the year.

“Whilst political debate and campaigns have focussed on the risks around betting, our research shows it is important to raise awareness of the gambling harms associated with online gaming. Gaming, in particular slots games, is much larger in terms of total online spending by British players and analysis of customer account data throws up more red flags indicative of potential harm from gambling.”

The study shows that heavy spending groups included many players from very deprived areas and that the online gambling industry relies on a small percentage of customers with the largest losses for the vast majority of its revenue. Overall, the ‘top-10%’ of gambling accounts by volume (amount staked) contributed 79% of operator revenue.

A further follow-on web survey, which collected additional data from 1,806 account-holders from two operators (a subset of the main sample) in September 2021, explored socio-demographic characteristics and the relationship between patterns of play and harmful gambling.

Survey participants with higher spends and people who gambled on gaming products only or on both betting and gaming products in 2018/19 were more likely to be identified as experiencing problems with gambling in September 2021.

Those with the largest losses who reported they had decreased their gambling since June 2019 were the most likely to report it was very difficult or difficult to reduce their online gambling (19%) compared to those who made a profit on their account in 2018/19 (2%).

Dr Sokratis Dinos, Director of Health at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), said: This research provides an unprecedented insight into online gambling, with crucial insights for future policy and regulation in Great Britain. For both gaming and betting, a ‘vital few’ customers are providing the lion’s share of revenue for major gambling operators. The survey further indicates that many of these customers may be at risk of gambling harms.”

The authors say a key strength of the study is that is uses the largest and most detailed data set from online gambling to date in Great Britain. They say more data collected over time-periods would help analyse early predictors of problematic behaviour. 

The report makes several recommendations including: future safer gambling campaigns should give greater weight to the risks of playing casino and slots games online; future research should look at which online gamblers have converted from betting-only to betting and gaming status and whether this has a causal effect on risk of gambling harm; operators should closely monitor customers who have shifted from betting-only to ‘dual’ status (taking part in both betting and gaming) and consider lowering their thresholds for interacting with customers who may be at risk.

Zoë Osmond, CEO at GambleAware, said: “This research adds to the growing body of evidence showing that harms from gambling are falling disproportionately on the most deprived communities. The current cost of living crisis along with the economic fallout of the pandemic can only exacerbate this further – which underscores the need for concerted system-wide action to prevent gambling harms.

“We welcome the findings and recommendations for future public health campaigns, as we work to break down the barriers that those suffering from gambling harm face when accessing treatment and support.”