Harvard Study Finds Fears About Online Gambling Unsupported
In what is thought to be the first comprehensive, empirical study of online-gambling behaviors, Harvard Medical School's Division of Addictions characterizes a majority of online gamblers' behavior as "moderate," concluding that its findings do not support previously-made claims that online gambling has "an inherent propensity" to cause problem or "excessive" gambling.
The study, "Assessing the Playing Field: A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Internet Sports Gambling Behavior," was conducted with the support of the Austrian online-betting group Bwin in order to guide the company in its efforts to implement and promote responsible gambling. As its authors explain, the study responds to the current paucity of information regarding online gambling and to the fact that "concerns about Internet gambling are growing across various interest groups." For similar reasons, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) proposed a House bill (H.R. 2140) early last month to provide for a study of online gambling by the National Academy of Sciences.
The study uses data collected from having observed actual playing patterns of over 40,000 individuals who placed sports bets on Bwin's site over an eight-month period in 2005. Having considered the subjects' time spent gambling, frequency of placing bets, and amount of money wagered, researchers concluded that "the subscribers' gambling activity levels were moderate," and that the "findings reported here do not support the speculation that Internet gambling has an inherent propensity to encourage excessive gambling among a large proportion of players."
The study looked at both "fixed-odds" bets (e.g., bets on the outcome of a particular game) and "live-action" bets (e.g., in-game, proposition bets such as which side would have the next corner kick). The fixed-odds bettors averaged placing 2.5 bets of €4 (approx. $5.30 U.S.) every fourth day over an average period of 4 months (from first to last bet) at an average loss of 29% of the amount wagered. The live-action bettors averaged placing 2.8 wagers of €4 every fourth day over an average period of six weeks at an average loss of 18% of the amount wagered. Interestingly, the data showed that "individuals seemed to moderate their behavior based on their wins and losses." In other words, "as percent lost increased, duration of play, number of bets, bets per day, Euros per bet, and total wagers all decreased." As the authors point out, such a finding is particularly significant since "a hallmark feature of gambling-related problems might be the continuation of gambling despite adverse consequences."
The Harvard study distinguishes itself from previous studies by its considerable sample size, its focus on online gambling (as opposed to gambling in general), and its use of objectively obtained, empirical data rather than self-reports. In debates about online gambling in the United States, other, less representative and/or specific studies frequently have been cited. For example, during the June 8th House Committee of Financial Services hearing on online gambling, Rep. Jim Bachus (R-AL) referred to a study conducted by the University of Connecticut Health Center that he said found 74% of those who use the internet to gamble have "serious, chronic problems with addiction." In fact, the 2002 study cited by Rep. Bachus was a study of gambling behaviors among a select group, not a comprehensive study of online gambling in particular. The University of Connecticut study was based on questionnaires filled out by 389 individuals seeking free or reduced-cost health care, only 31 of whom had any experience with online gambling.
The Harvard study presents itself as taking the "first steps" toward an even larger analysis that would additionally consider other varieties of online gambling such as casino games and poker. Bwin owns the Ongame Network of online poker rooms (which includes PokerRoom and EuroPoker), and has already indicated it will likely extend the scope of the study with the online poker industry in mind.