Addictive Feedback Loops: Social Media & Gambling during a Pandemic

This blog is part of a series relating to the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

As discussed previously, there are a myriad of factors associated with the coronavirus pandemic that negatively impact psychological wellness. While many aspects of this crisis have a clear and direct link to known triggers for adverse mental health, such as loss of employment and reduced social connection, there are other less direct but more widespread factors contributing to these impacts that may be harder for people to identify or control. The non-stop news cycle is, of course, one of these factors. With rapidly changing circumstances comes a constant stream of new information. Because media is hyper-available to us now, it is much more difficult to just ‘switch-off’, especially when such updates are needed to stay abreast of public health matters and to avoid legal and financial punishment for non-compliance with shifting COVID-19-related measures. While there are many examples of the modern global news cycle being dominated by a particular topic, as was the case during the Notre-Dame fire, for better or worse these events usually capture our attention and then dissipate from our collective awareness relatively quickly. With COVID-19, there is no similar reprieve.

For several weeks, the news cycle has been unrelentingly focused on the coronavirus situation – with good reason – and there are very few areas of life and society that are not being impacted. Much of this information is consumed via social media, as more people now get their news via social media than traditional news broadcasts. It is important to note that social media platforms, while being used to share important information (and a lot of misinformation), are specifically designed to use “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that keep people scrolling. This cycle engages the reward pathways in our brains which are activated in a similar way to the addictive tactics used in online gambling platforms and poker machines. Our devices can be addictive at the best of times but under these circumstances they are both a lifeline and a gateway to further suffering for many people. 

For Australians, gambling is a popular pastime with over $18 billion spent annually on gambling, which equates to $1500 per capita. This gambling expenditure is significantly higher than that of other comparable countries such as New Zealand ($495 per capita), Canada ($393 per capita) and the United States ($325 per capita). However, for many it is not just a pastime: an estimated 200,000 Australians have a gambling problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies Gambling Disorder as a non-substance behaviour typified by repeated, excessive spending on gambling resulting in clinically significant adverse consequences, impaired personal, familial, financial, and employment/study functioning, and social and legal costs. With casinos, TABs and sporting activities closed due to coronavirus, gambling experts have already noted that problem gamblers are being directly targeted by companies to continue betting on ‘exotic’ and international markets such as Russian table tennis, political events, and virtual sports. One Australian gambling expert, Dr Sally Gainsbury, says that despite the restrictions on physical locations for gambling, the online market is very active and many companies continue to target those people: “in times of crisis, we know historically people do turn to gambling and they continue to gamble in the hopes of it having a positive influence on their life.”  Circumstances of stress, insecurity and emotional upheaval are known risk-factors for gamblers, who often turn to gambling to escape the reality of their situation. These people are likely to see the negative impacts of this behaviour even more acutely than under ordinary circumstances, especially with the added financial pressures right now, only made worse by the common tactic of funding gambling via credit cards. Tony Clarkson, principal clinical advisor with the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, notes that “problem gambling has a lot of different issues associated with it, like mental health and drug and alcohol addiction and family violence, and sometimes they work in tandem and exacerbate one another.” 

For those who engage in problem gambling behaviours, the vicious cycle is hard to break, as gambling is associated with loss of control and functions as a form of escapism. This, in turn, only produces more feelings of shame, regret, guilt and frustration with further loss of control. The financial, personal and interpersonal consequences of this cycle have severe adverse effects on mental health, which can then further perpetuate the gambling cycle.  A report by the Productivity Commission in 2010 estimated that problem gambling costs Australia $4.7 to $8.4 billion per annum due to suicide, depression, breakdown of interpersonal relationships, reduced productivity, unemployment, bankruptcy and crime. An earlier report the Productivity Commission found that gambling is believed to affect not only the gambler, but up to 10 other individuals around them. The reality is that ten years later, with more sophisticated technology for both targeting gamblers and keeping them in these addictive feedback loops spending money, as well as the more widespread availability of personal handheld devices, these figures are likely now much higher. 

While physical distancing measures have so far prevented Australia from experiencing the same devastating scale of physical health impacts as other nations, there is undoubtedly a range of unseen impacts that this pandemic is having on our mental health. How can we support those experiencing the impacts of addictive behaviours during this crisis, especially when these issues may now be even more concealed in the context of social isolation?

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