Before coming of age, Unai Garma, a 26-year-old from Bilbao, had already made an account with an online gambling house. From betting on one euro at the weekend with friends to watch the football matches "with more emotion", he went on to be aware of the risky money from his mobile phone at all hours. It was at that point that the dependency worsened. "Betting on the internet makes it very easy for you to do it whenever you want and for anything," says Garma. Online gambling increases the risks of addiction sixfold, according to the report Study of the Prevalence of Gambling by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, presented at the end of October.
Of the more than one and a half million active online gamblers in Spain, 11.54% have symptoms of risk of problem gambling, while of those who gamble in person, the percentage drops to 1.77%, according to the same report. Slot machines, with 52%, or sports betting, with 18%, are two of the most risky segments. The survey carried out on more than 18,000 households includes lying, loss of control, worry or interference in other areas of daily life, among others, as symptoms.
There are two factors that enhance addiction through the internet: the ease of gambling anytime and anywhere and losing track of the money wagered. Garma corroborates both and says that while he was gambling from his room or at the university, "no one noticed." Another rehabilitated former player, a 44-year-old Galician who prefers to remain anonymous, also confirms the reasons for the increased risk. "You're not aware of money; There was a day when I won a lot and the next day I melted it down," he recalls. In his case, he went straight to online gambling so he wouldn't get caught. It was in 2008, when his wife lost her job. The addiction lasted more than a decade and left a trail of debts that he is still paying back.
For Sara Meca, a Valencian psychologist specialising in gambling addictions, online gambling has variables that increase risk. "Environmental characteristics, such as intimacy, comfort or ease, or structural characteristics, such as the immediacy of reward or speed, are aggravated," Meca argues. An idea with which the technical director of the Spanish Federation of Rehabilitated Gamblers (FEJAR), Juan Lamas, agrees, who argues that there are four features that affect addiction: "Accessibility, availability, anonymity and age of onset".
Taking a look at any bookmaker is enough to see how many possibilities there are to risk. At all hours, every day of the year. From the corners that are going to be taken in a football match to who is going to win the next point in a tennis match. Obsessed with recovering money stolen from the family piggy bank or borrowed from his friends, Garma says he even bet on "a game of Thai badminton or greyhound races," without even knowing who was participating.
The unfathomable supply and the change in the trend of consumption are symptoms of the rise of online gambling and betting in the last decade. The turnover has not stopped growing, going from 110 million euros in revenues in the first quarter of 2012 to 824 million in the first quarter of 2023, according to the National Commission of Markets and Competition.
Currently, online gambling accounts for 8.7% of total gambling expenditure – the difference between the amounts deposited and withdrawn by customers – and maintains its upward trend since it was regulated in 2011, according to the Yearbook of Gambling in Spain 2022, prepared by the Gambling Business Council.
The punctual stimuli with the winning bets were an exception among a feeling of constant anxiety, according to both rehabilitated players. Garma was "embarrassed" to meet up with her group of friends in case they brought up the subject. "I lived in constant restlessness, with nervousness and not being able to sleep," she says.
The dream was also one of the first victims in the case of the rehabilitated Galician player. "Sometimes I would wake up at three in the morning and check how the results were going; other times, I did it as soon as I woke up," he recalls. An obsession that prevented him from enjoying "a dinner with colleagues or a conversation with his wife", as his mind wandered thinking about gambling.
The psychologist alludes to this loss of circles as one of the main symptoms when addiction is more developed. "There is anxiety and financial stress that ends up taking you away from the social, family and work areas," explains Meca.
Internet Gambling: Secret Pandemics
The 26-year-old from Bilbao was caught by his family when he had been hiding it for "a year and a bit". He was offered a choice between starting group therapy for rehab or kicking him out of the house, and he chose the former. "It was my birthday and that's when I opened my eyes. In therapy there were older people, who said they were in debt, that they had had to sell their car or that they had divorced. When I was 20 years old, I got scared," Garma confesses. It wasn't so easy for the 44-year-old Galician, who relapsed into the game. "It's a lifelong disease. I try to control it and I stay alert, but I wouldn't put my hand in the fire for me," he says.
The preference for online or land-based gambling has a generational component. The population between 18 and 45 access mostly through the internet, while, from the age of 46, the face-to-face option is the favorite. Gender is also a distinguishing factor: among online gamblers, around 80% are men, a percentage that drops to 52% in the case of those who bet in physical locations.
The digitalization of the younger population is one of the arguments put forward by the majority online gaming association, JDigital, in a statement published after learning of the study, to explain this trend. They also believe that the "greater visibility of the symptomatology of possible problems related to gambling responds to a greater awareness of the younger population of aspects related to mental health".
With the aim of reducing problem gambling, the Council of Ministers approved in November 2020 a Royal Decree regulating the advertising of bookmakers. The law prohibits sports sponsorships and the appearance of famous people and relegates advertisements to the early hours of the morning, between one and five o'clock.
The legislation passed in 2020 specified Articles 7 and 8 of the Gambling Regulation Act 2011. On Wednesday, the Directorate-General for the Regulation of Gambling, under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, closed 14 web portals and imposed fines totalling more than 71 million euros.
Despite the intermittent rehabilitation process, the former Galician player values having recovered his previous life. "My wife has been the machine of my life, she has put up with me a lot," he says emotionally. Garma has continued to be linked to the world of gambling, but from the side of awareness, and has promoted the A 90 grados project, focused on the prevention and detection of gambling addiction. She also uses her Tik Tok account — @ugarma14 — to share her experience. "I wanted to lend a hand, that my experience would serve to contribute that grain of sand," says Garma.
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