Sally Gainsbury is one of the world’s foremost researchers into problem gambling, so it’s no surprise that one of the first studies on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic came out of her group at the University of Sydney.
With no funding, Gainsbury, co-investigator Alex Blaszczynski and a team of researchers were able to gather nearly 800 gamblers to ask how their gambling habits changed during the coronavirus lockdown in Australia, one of the most restrictive in the world. She spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros from her office in Sydney in July.
GGB: You came up with this research study rather quickly, because it was done in the month of May, just two months into the pandemic. How long did it take you to design it and get it off the ground?
Sally Gainsbury: The Covid shutdown in Australia occurred officially on the 26th of March. That’s when all land-based gambling venues across the country were closed by the government. There was no access to electronic gaming machines, which are our poker machines. Also, casinos, keno and wagering in venues all were prohibited. There was still lottery through retail outlets, although there was a stay-at-home order in place, pretty much across the country. So, it was quite restrictive, and (gambling) was mostly online.
In Australia, online gambling is limited to purchase of lottery tickets (but not scratch tickets) and online wagering. However, since all of the sports matches were shut down in Australia and mostly around the world, obviously that was very limited.
I’m the director of a treatment clinic, and we also pivoted immediately to seeing clients online. We’ve got a research team, so once we got ourselves set up in our online environment, we really started thinking, “Is this an opportunity we can’t miss?” In Australia, gambling has always been so accessible, in every neighborhood. So this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study what happens when you take all of that away. What are the unintended negative consequences? Will everyone just go online? So, we put this survey together.
Along with the shutdown of venues, obviously a lot of people were out of work, so we wanted to look at the relationship between gambling, gambling problems, financial well-being and also psychological distress. Because this was a really uncertain, stressful time for a lot of people.
How many people were involved in the survey?
We had 764 people who were recruited to complete the survey, then sent a second survey to those who agreed to be followed up. At last check, around a quarter of those had completed a follow-up survey, which is going to be more interesting, because then we can look at the longitudinal effect, particularly because in Australia we now have a differential situation. Some states have opened up. Some states are sort of opened up, but still have a sense of trepidation. And one state is still entirely locked down. So, now we’ll really be able to start seeing differences between people, based on the different availability of gambling as well.
How did you find these people?
We didn’t have any money to pay for recruitment, so essentially we begged and borrowed favors. We used social media ads. We got everything approved by (the Ethics Office), so that’s a really important step. Even though it was rushed, we made sure we went through that full process. We put ads up on social media, on Twitter and Facebook. We sent ads out to various groups through e-newsletters, and we ended up with 764 completed surveys that were usable, with no missing data. That was quite good, in terms of our response rate.
But this isn’t representative of all of Australia, and we didn’t use any kind of quotas or a panel sample. So, it’s a self-recruited sample, and that’s one limitation. It’s not going to capture everyone or everything.
It seems to be heavily skewed toward male respondents. Does that make it a problem?
Possibly, because that would be similar to the fact that 78 percent of our participants had gambled online. What that really means is, since we used online to recruit, we didn’t really capture all the people who gamble traditionally in venues. We mostly captured people who were already active betting online, and in Australia, it’s already a predominantly male sample.
What were some of the findings?
We looked at the frequency of gambling, which is a quite good proxy for understanding overall involvement. We found that nearly three in four participants actually reported spending less time gambling during the shutdown.
Some gambled more—11 percent said they increased gambling. But specifically for online gambling, most people were reducing their time gambling online. About a third had minimal change; 18 percent increased their gambling, and just 1 percent were gambling online for the first time, which again, suggests that this was already quite an active online sample.
A large number, 63 percent, said they stopped gambling online completely. That’s a pretty significant number.
I think this reflects the fact there wasn’t as much to gamble on. You’re right, there was some Belarusian soccer, Russian table tennis, there were some esports. But for people who (prefer) betting on more traditional sports, none of these were occurring.
How can people get a copy of the report?
It’s available at the University of Sydney Brain and Mind Centre research site (sydney.edu.au/brain-mind). There’s a subcategory of our gambling research within the Brain and Mind Centre.
You could email me; my email address is available on the University of Sydney website, and I’m on twitter, @DrSalGainsbury. We’re really excited to be able to share this research.