This topic has two main components internet and gambling. Stopping internet gambling would be easy if we had a switch in our brain/computer interface that we could click on and turn off gambling, over eating, drinking too much alcohol, obsessive thoughts, risk taking behavior and hard drug addiction. There is as yet no such magic switch. We have several levels of intervention we can use including legislative controls, computer and software controls, family controls, support group controls, therapeutic controls and internal self–directed controls.
The internet alone is not in and of itself the cause of problem gambling. It does make it easier, more private, secret and permits longer times of solitary gambling. It is, in the language of addictions, a major facilitator. Online gambling is aggressively marketed as a quick safe way to bring fun to people who are not able to go out and use existing gambling facilities. Gambling is an addictive pattern of behavior, which has a lot in common with other addictive behaviors such as alcohol addiction, over eating, using hard narcotics and obsessive compulsive thoughts.
People developed the potential for addictive behaviors because addictive behaviors are biological adaptive. There is the pleasure of excitement and empty let down feelings of loss and pain. Our brains are hard wired for pleasure, persistence on near misses and the agony of defeat. These formerly adaptive mood changes have changed in modern life. For some people, addictive behavior including online gambling is a means to cope with an underlying Bipolar or Unipolar Affective Disorder. The addictive behavior provides a channel for the highs and lows to be stimulated or reduced more effectively. Specifically, we know that addictive behaviors including online gambling involve a disruption of the balance of chemicals in the pleasure centers of the brain. Some people are wired and learned to strive after euphoria their state of winning. The brain areas are activated associated with pleasure, drug responses and alcohol creating their own special heaven. In the absence of the euphoria and rush of winning, the person at best feels empty and at worst feels profoundly sad, angry and despairing. Absent the excitement of winning they feel totally defeated and humiliated. They then begin all over again to search for the euphoria. As the spiral continues, they commit more of their mental energy, time, money and resources to online gambling. Eventually their family and friends and co-workers notice the change, and the person continues to downwardly spiral until they have lost everything. If they are lucky, a good counselor, family member or self-help program participant intervenes, and they loss their access to money, the internet, their credit cards. They must change their behavior. Hopefully, this change involves evolving a new life style, which is much healthier than their previous life style.
Neuroscientists know quite a bit about the circuitry involved in these addictive behaviors. Most of the areas involved are in the front and middle of the brain. They include frontal reasoning areas, which should play a role in inhibiting behavior. The other areas of the brain involved are those associated with strong emotions such as pleasure, happiness, anxiety, sadness and and anger. The pleasure centers of the brain interact with both areas, the frontal lobes and mid-brains. The specific breakdown seems to be when the frontal lobes should be able to inhibit compulsive or addictive behaviors, but the frontal lobes do not function as such. Some people are unable to control impulsive behaviors and permit such behavior. The impulsive behaviors have dramatic social consequences, and the person then feels empty and sad which stimulate a search for pleasure and more internet gambling looking for a win to overcome the inhibiting impulses from the frontal lobes.
For some people, the internet itself and not the gambling is addicting. Some people cannot go even minutes without checking their email or texting someone. There are people who are news junkies who need to know everything going on in the world. There is beginning to be services for generic internet addictions. However, the combination of easy access, quick responsiveness and the lure of gambling are very powerful. The two together make some people very easily addicted. This addiction can spread and take over their whole life. There is very little neuroscientific research on the addictiveness of and brain effects of using the internet by itself.
Clearly, the rapid rise and broad spread of internet gambling is not just an individual problem. It is a nationwide and world-wide problem. Let’s look at some ways to stop internet gambling as a country. The unique accessibility, privacy, secrecy and lack of effective controls makes internet gambling even more risky than regular gambling or other risky behaviors. One major way to stop internet gambling is legislation and specifically legislation to make it illegal. In fact, there are multiple advocacy groups lobbying for this step. It is the increased risk of internet gambling is the focus of this article. Other methods of gambling provide more options for observing and managing problem behaviors. Sitting alone at one’s computer, the person lacks checks and balances.
Some of the strongest advocates of controlling online gambling are Casino owners. While part of their motivation may be to keep their casinos profitable, there is also a genuine interest in responsible gambling and helping the public avoid the disastrous consequences of addictive gambling. There is a very good possibility that people with moral objections to gambling, owners of casinos, self-help group members and family members of people with online gambling addictions can work to pressure Congress for stronger legislation even prohibiting internet gambling all together.
Another popularly advertised means of stopping internet gambling is to have factory installed software or firmware that blocks incoming internet gambling sites. A piece of well-crafted blocking software is a good start and an apparently safe solution. However, the technology world is never quite that simple. First, any computer savvy middle schooler or his or her friends can find a way around the blocking software. One would invest money and have it defeated easily. Secondly, the software blocks sites with names that includes gambling terms. What if a site is named Lucky Kid Big Win Each Turn. It could easily be an effective ad or link for a gambling site and get through a filter. Another problem is that blocking software can be turned off. A frustrated, depressed housewife newly recovering from a gambling addiction can simply turn off the blocking software and seek the joy and glory of winning online. Blocking software is a good start, but it has to be used consistently. If one can develop the will power to block internet gambling using software, one can also develop the discipline to manage it without the blocking software.
Another way to stop internet gambling is to deal with it as a family. This could include family therapy or counseling. Family members usually have some sense something is wrong with the person’s behavior. One gets cues like the person doesn’t got to work anymore, stays glued to the computer for weeks, receives serious letters from collection agencies about unpaid debts. At this point the family can collectively step in and develop a plan of action and recovery, and the family can remove the money, credit cards and internet access to disrupt the behavior. The important point is that there is a need for a firm plan that everyone in the family endorses and is willing to live with for the long term. This method involves the family taking significant control over the addict’s life and behavior. It does eventually work, but it takes a toll on the family as it progresses. One of the challenging features of these plans is that the person is left with a small daily cash allowance and no credit cards or means to buy larger more expensive products. The targeted person must be at least minimally willing to accept the limits and external scrutiny necessary for them to successfully change their behavior.
Another popular means of stopping internet gambling is to participate in a self-help group. There are generic gambling and addiction self-help groups. As yet, there does not appear to be any self-help groups for specifically internet gamblers. They are likely to emerge since this addictive behavior is wide spread and appears likely to be growing. A self-help group provides support with people who know what the person is experiencing. The use of a sponsor or guide who is also recovering is a very good strategy to help people who might otherwise resume online gambling.
At present, there are no specific drugs or medications to use in treating internet gambling. Related problems like anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder and obsessive thinking can be treated with medication which reduces some of the problems contributing to internet gambling.
Another approach to stopping internet gambling is an active public media campaign. At present, there are some good public service campaigns around smoking, but there are very view targeted to internet gambling. As part of promoting public awareness, one could have communities adopt outdoor days where everyone leaves their house and computers, and they go outside, exercises and socializes.
Research on internet gambling is definitely needed and very important. In studying gambling, there are excellent neuroscientific studies looking at which areas of the brain are activated by wins, near misses and total misses. There is good behavioral research on this use of learning based approaches and psychotherapy to treat gambling addiction. When it comes to internet gambling, there is almost no research. What are needed are brain studies, behavioral monitoring studies, controlled experiments and personality assessments.
There is no simple quick fix for internet gambling. In order to stop internet gambling, our society has to act at the political, family, support group and individual levels. I think the best long term solution is and individual approaches which identifies the person’s stressors and unmet needs and wishes that drive internet gambling behavior and replace those with healthier choices such as exercising, improving relationships, spending time outdoors and meditating. If we use many approaches at different levels, we can help stop internet gambling.
Think about ways you can help prevent internet gambling. Can you write to your Congressman or Senator? Can you participate in a public relations spot? Can you join support groups for recovering internet gambling addicts? Can you get help for a family member with an internet gambling addiction? Can you examine your own behavior to see in what ways you are addicted to internet gambling? Can you develop a healthier life style with better food and more outside activity?