‘Gamble responsibly’ is a message that we hear and see everywhere. Individuals are told to set limits, step away when gambling is no longer fun, and to seek help when they feel like their gambling is a ‘problem’. We know that these messages are a largely a construct of the gambling industry and governments who have vested interests in gambling. So what impact does this framing of gambling as largely an issue of personal responsibility have on those who have experienced gambling harm? Researchers at the Institute for Health Transformation spoke to gamblers and their family members to find out.
‘Responsible gambling’ frames are used by governments and the gambling industry to position gambling as largely an activity that people can make rational and informed decisions about. Just like the tobacco and alcohol industries, this personal responsibility frame is also used by the gambling industry to protect their interests and reputation.
‘Responsible gambling’ messages have been criticised by public health academics for not being backed by evidence, and for deflecting the role that governments and the gambling industry play in creating gambling harm. But what impact do these messages have on people who experience gambling harm, including their family members? Guided by an advisory group of people with a lived experience of gambling harm, our study in Frontiers in Sociology sought to find out.
We asked people how they thought about the role of responsibility in gambling harm, and whether they tried to apply responsible gambling strategies to their own lives. Our study found that people who perceive that they are engaging in ‘irresponsible’ gambling, try to correct this acting upon the messages that they have internalised about responsible gambling. It further shows that affected others also try to act upon these messages by taking responsibility to try to limit the negative financial impact of the gambling.
Many participants said they thought that gambling harm was primarily the result of individual behaviour, and they blamed themselves for their experiences of harm. While gamblers tried to take responsibility for their gambling behaviours, they found that ‘responsible gambling’ tools such as pre-commitment tools and self-exclusion mechanisms were easy to bypass, and professional support was difficult to access.
Many gamblers blamed themselves for their experience of harm and felt ashamed because they were not able to implement strategies that would help them to control their gambling. This led some gamblers to keep their gambling secret due to fear of judgment.
I’d lost again and I just went to the toilet and burst out crying. And I was like, ‘Why am I crying? What’s going on here? What’s wrong here?’ I was so disconnected from myself. Like I hated being a gambling liar and a thief. I really hated it, but it was habitual. It was an obsession and a compulsion. – 25-year-old male gambler
Family members also felt a sense of responsibility to intervene to help, particularly to clear debts, pay bills, or to financially support the gambler. This placed significant financial stress on family members, and had long lasting negative impacts on their relationship with the gambler:
He had a young family and I had to go in and take over. I was only in my twenties. And so, it was a long time ago. I had to take over his finances for about three months. Just, you know, I paid their bills. I paid everything. And that’s money that’s still owed to me. – 56-year-old female impacted by her siblings’ gambling
Despite trying repeatedly to apply responsibility strategies to their own lives, participants were critical of the ability of ‘responsible gambling’ messages to reduce harm. Many participants wanted messages to be reframed to provide honest information about harm and the products and industries that caused this harm. Many advocated that the only way to prevent harm was to move towards public health strategies such as reducing or banning gambling advertising, reducing the availability and accessibility of gambling products, and making self-exclusion registers more robust.
Now I’m very much aware in my own mind that every human being deserves protection, especially someone who’s lost their ability to protect themselves which is an addict. They need more protection than anybody. – 73-year-old female gambler
This study provides further support for the reframing of gambling away from the harmful responsible gambling messages. Messages that focus on gambling products and industry tactics as the key vectors of harm would also help to ease the shame and stigma people experience. Independent research is needed to identify which messages will be most effective, but these messages must be backed up by strong legislative changes to better regulate the gambling industry’s products and practices.
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This study was funded by using a research support account held by Professor Samantha Thomas and an internal Deakin University grant. The authors would like to thank Anna Bardsley, Carolyn Crawford, Bel Downes and Paul Fung for their valuable contribution as members of the Experts by Experience Advisory Group.
Read the study
To read the research article by Sarah Marko, Prof Samantha Thomas, Dr Hannah Pitt and Emeritus Professor Mike Daube, visit the Frontiers in Sociology website.