Gaming addiction is viewed as a major challenge across Asia, with growing access to online and mobile gaming raising the risk for problem behaviour, researchers say.
Concern over problem gambling is often cited as a key reason why regional governments ban access to casinos for their residents and how to effectively tackle the issue may play a role in shaping future legislation.
In a recent study, Brown School Associate Professor Renee Cunningham-Williams et al. reported that the highest rates of problem gambling in the world were found in Asian countries, with the exception of South Korea. Standardized averages across a decade through to 2011 show a problem gambling prevalence of 5.6 percent in Hong Kong, 6 percent in Macau, and 3.8 percent in Singapore; compared to the international average of 2.3 percent.
In Singapore, a 2014 report by the island state’s National Addiction Management Service (NAMS) found over 520 patients were treated for gambling addiction at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) – a reported increase of 50 percent since 2010.
In Thailand, a focus of concern has been on students and social issues arising from gambling mostly on football. A study supported by the Sodsri-Saridwongsa Foundation showed that over 500,000 university students took part in gambling – largely football betting or playing cards despite gambling being illegal in Thailand.
A non-government organization, “Stop Gambling Network”, estimated that in the 2016 Euro Cup Championship as many as one million young people were betting on the games.
A 2016 study by Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for Gaming Studies, in conjunction with the Research Centre for Social and Business Development estimated that more than 16 percent of Thai youth in major provinces had plans to bet on the 2016 Euro Championships.
The research centre’s director, Thana Hapipat, told AGB the growth in football betting had followed the wider use of social media and smartphones to lodge bets. “Young people can now play by way of many, many channels,” Thana said. “The gambler can play anywhere, anytime, you just need to have a mobile phone,” he said.
American addiction counsellor, Craig Gagnon, agrees smart phone technology allows gamers to be in online websites anywhere increasing the risk of financial indebtedness.
In an interview with AGB, he said in the past gambling addiction in Asia centred on a mixture of regular visits to Macau or casinos across the border in Cambodia, as well as underground casinos and card games. But that has changed significantly in the last “two to three years."
“The majority of individuals seeking help for gambling addiction – their primary source of gambling is online sports betting.”
Gagnon, who completed a doctoral thesis at Walden University, Minneapolis, is a licensed professional counsellor and psychologist.
The clear reason for the trend lies in the technology. “It seems to have evolved with the onset of the smartphone. Without exception people use their phone to do their gambling,” he said.
He recently told foreign journalists that the ease with which people are now able to gamble means that we are seeing players in a Starbucks restaurant “dropping 12 million baht ($330,000) in one – we’re starting to see that.”
There are also clients “that have been in debt in a combination of actual assets they spent plus debt they have acquired in the 200 – 250 million baht (US$5.5 - $6.9 million) range."
“The thing with addiction, the further down you go the more you can justify going a little further. So that one million baht continues,” he said.
In Thailand, the profile of clients seeking treatment are largely ethnic Thai or Thai of Indian descent, in their early 20s to mid-30s, “anything from university students to young professionals.”
He also notes a pattern of behaviour. “It goes from playing regular games on their phone, then it goes into the games you have to pay to upgrade your ‘superpowers’. And then from the transition to the sports betting is not a big leap,” he said.
The unreal quality of playing online also leaves players vulnerable to overspending in contrast to physically playing at a casino requiring transactions that involve “putting money on the table."
Gagnon, head counsellor at the Cabin Addiction Services Group in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, says too often gamers only seek the professional services when “they are so far in they cannot pay their way out on their own."
“Our typical client may have lost all of their own personal resources, but generally they have family or friends that are still supporting them, that are helping them get sorted out,” he said, adding the aid comes on condition the gamer seekers professional advice.
While, land-based casinos are able to put measures in place to help monitor and curb problem behaviour, that is not so easy for the online sphere, which in Asia remains largely unregulated.
According to Gagnon, the best policy is to encourage abstinence for those with problems.
Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.
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