The global growth of gambling has led to tensions about what role it can and should play in our societies. In Kenya, the rise of online sports betting highlights broader social issues - with disillusioned youth using it as a way to fund themselves through university and through life. In Albania, the government is grappling with a social and health crisis after years of rapid gambling expansion and in the UK, current gambling legislation is under review, with particular focus on the impact on young people.
As the pandemic escalates global economic crises and behaviours shift further online, the expansion of gambling poses additional risks, especially to young people who face an increasingly uncertain future.
As a new documentary series for the BBC World Service discusses, opportunities for gambling are rapidly growing around the world. Some governments promote it to fill gaps in government budgets (lotteries are a prime example). Others usher in new, relaxed gambling rules without accounting for potential fallout. But a closer look at those caught up in the cycle of gambling shows that the effects can be devastating.
Jonah* is a 21-year-old student living in Kenya that I interviewed for the BBC's Gambling: A Sure Bet. He describes himself as a "gambling addict". Like so many of his friends, he bets on European football matches, aiming to make enough money to fund his way through college. And he does. Last year, he won enough money to fund his fees for a semester. But he's also anxious about this, and ashamed of his behaviour - especially stealing from his parents to fund his betting (gambling addiction is a cycle and people continue to feed their betting habits despite winning), worrying about what would happen if they found out about it.
The growth of gambling
Betting in Kenya has become a way of life for so many young people like Jonah. According to him and his friends, there are so few opportunities for meaningful employment for young people in Kenya that gambling seems like a logical way to make money. Estimates suggest that 76% of young people in Kenya gamble, despite a growing awareness of its drawbacks. One of the reasons being that in Kenya, as across Africa more broadly, there is little regulation which offers protection to people from gambling harms.
However, some people and organisations are agitating for change. Just four weeks ago, Gamban, a social enterprise which provides gambling-blocking software, rolled out its platform in Kenya - becoming the first tool available in the country to protect gamblers. Unfortunately, moves like these may be too little too late for a cohort of youth who now see gambling as part of their pathway out of poverty.
In Albania, one of Europe's poorest nations, the rapid expansion of gambling was symptomatic of the nation's move from socialist republic to democracy and capitalism in the early 1990s. Accompanying this shift, gambling was legalised in 1992. Albanians, especially young Albanian men, took to this with gusto. More than 4,000 betting shops sprung up across Albania, later accompanied by online gambling.
But this was not without consequences. When research from the Albanian University of Tirana showed the ubiquity of gambling among children aged ten to 15 years of age and its association with attempted suicide, domestic violence and family breakdown, the government responded, passing a law in 2018 that banned most forms of gambling.
Yet the impact of the ban is unknown, especially on young people. Investigation shows that a vibrant, underground network of gambling provision has been set up around Albania, leading some to argue that prohibition is not the answer. But in the case of young people, it may be worth considering the long game. For the next generation of children growing up when gambling is no longer state sanctioned, heavily advertised nor a visible part of community cultures, it may be that these actions help break the Albanian appetite for gambling.
The rising popularity of online sports betting among young people in Britain is notable too. Gambling cultures have changed rapidly in the past few decades and are promoted as normal leisure activities. Some of these include increasingly complex betting infrastructures between sports teams, gambling providers and media broadcasters. In fact, sport seems to have been entirely reframed through the lens of gambling in recent years, with far-reaching impact.
Gambling products have become increasingly visible, especially to children, through sponsorships, marketing, in-stadium advertising - as well as through regular advertising during televised sports.
The impact on mental health
According to my research, young men who experience problems with their gambling are nine times more likely to attempt suicide than those with no problems, and young women are five times more likely. This was after other things suchh as impulsivity, poor wellbeing and anxiety were taken into account, suggesting that young people who experience problem gambling are at considerable risk of suicidal ideation and attempts regardless of other pre-existing issues.
One study on young people in Bristol estimates that around one in 20 between the ages of 17 and 20 start to experience gambling problems. All of this is potentially compounded by greater stress, anxiety and uncertainty that young people feel as a result of the pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to increase their vulnerabilities, the issues are likely to continue for years to come.
Despite clear concerns about the global impact of gambling on young people, more countries are starting to allow online betting, in many cases without support to protect people. A recent study for the World Economic Forum looking at the most prescient Global Risks to society highlighted youth disillusionment and adverse technological advances as key concerns. Gambling intersects with both - and both are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic. As the scale of the economic crisis becomes clear, it's important that governments around the world recognise that gambling is not a solution to their problems.
- name has been changed for reasons of anonymity.
If you need help with problem gambling, you can seek NHS advice here:
Author: Heather Wardle - Lord Kelvin Adam Smith research fellow at the University of Glasgow, University of Glasgow