The hidden addiction

McGill gambling treatment centre researches the risks of online gaming

In a society that thrives on risk, it has become increasingly socially acceptable to live life to excess. “Binge-drinking culture” has become a media catchphrase, and the world watches, enthralled, as each week a new celebrity enters – or re-enters – rehab. Gambling is swiftly entering everyday life in the form of televised poker tournaments and online casinos offering everything from roulette to blackjack to bingo.

McGill’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors is leading research into the causes and treatments of gambling problems in young people. Jeffrey Derevensky, Professor of School/Applied Child Psychology in McGill’s Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology, outlined the centre’s aims, to “understand why some people can gamble normally without running into any problems and why some individuals develop problems.” Propensity towards developing a problem is linked to genetics, gender (males gamble more than females) and an addictive personality. However, Derevensky also pointed out that “one of the scariest findings that we found recently when we looked at college students with respect to why they gamble on the internet – is because of boredom.”
The centre aims their research towards developing preventive treatments by identifying at-risk groups of people. Derevensky emphasized the pluralistic attitude the centre takes towards treatment development: “We work on trying to understand what the underlying problems are –so we take a more eclectic approach.” Individuals with gambling problems “are not necessarily a homogenous group, but rather they have different attitudes [and] perspectives.” DVDs, CD-ROMs, print-outs, therapy, and video games are used to raise awareness about and treat gambling problems.

Online casinos take advantage of students’ obsession with video games, leading to their massive rise in popularity. Many online games are free and endless. If you lose, you start over without consequence. This way of thinking transfers to online casinos, and it’s easy to develop the attitude that if you’re losing, you just need to keep practicing to win. Certain online casinos capitalize on this attitude by establishing sister sites that let new members practice before actually playing for money. But Derevensky points out that research has suggested the payout rates on these free practice sites differs from the play-for-money sites. “There’s a natural inclination to think ‘If I’d only been doing this for real money, look how much I’d have.'”
Although in Derevensky’s experience, gambling problems among McGill students aren’t a widespread concern, the centre’s research has revealed a number of ways in which students are more susceptible to developing addictions. Eighteen to 25 year olds – that age bracket that bears the burden of majority in so many research studies – are more at risk. This, said Derevensky, combined with the general attitude of college students that “they’re smarter than everyone else – more invulnerable and invincible – becomes the perfect [setting] for engaging in gambling excessively.”
Excessive gambling is now easier than ever. With provincial governments operating real-life casinos (Loto-Québec runs three) and lotteries, not only is it socially acceptable to gamble but it’s officially endorsed as well. Derevensky explained that Quebec is involved in developing internet poker sites, and that it “will eventually open up full-scale [online] casino gambling, possibly even sports gambling.” Provincial governments do allocate funds towards treatment for at-risk and problem gamblers, but this spending is out of proportion with the gains. Quebec’s net profit from gambling was just under $1.5 billion in 2003-2004, but they spent only 1.37 per cent of their $20 million budget on the 4.6 per cent of the population that is at risk from excessive gambling. (Although when calculated to the amount per individual at-risk and problem gambler, Quebec gives more than any other province.)
The reality of gambling today is a far cry from the dazzling glamour of Ocean’s Eleven and the Bond franchise. With the advent of online casinos, gambling has become known as the “hidden addiction.” With no defined physical effects on the body, diagnosis can be tricky. As McGill’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors is making strides in research around the world, it should not be forgotten as a key resource for the University’s own students.

For more information on resources available to students, see