Chula Researchers Caution Against Online Gambling during COVID-19

According to Chula researchers the volume of online gambling has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, posing a serious threat to minors, and the government should urgently tackle this problem.

In the COVID19 era where everybody’s lives have been turned upside down, the economy has taken a nosedive, and people have lost their jobs, yet, most shockingly, surveys show that the number of online gamblers in 2021 has doubled and generated as much as 100 billion Baht in revenue.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi Treerat, Director of the Center for Gambling Studies, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, and her research team have studied all types of gambling in 2021 and pointed out the increasing trend of online gambling.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi Treerat, Director of the Center for Gambling Studies, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi Treerat
Director of the Center for Gambling Studies,
Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University

“One major concern is that online gambling is readily accessible, especially during COVID-19 outbreaks that everyone is stuck at home, and spends more time on a cell phone and a computer screen. And almost everyone has seen constant pop-up advertisements for online gambling, complete with all sorts of promotions, luring them to play,” Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi pointed out the grave danger of online gambling.

From offline gambling houses to online casinos

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi pinpointed online casinos because of the drastic change from physical places where one needs to travel and play face to face at a certain timeframe to online gaming that includes both live plays from the casino and play agents, and playing through computer programs such as slot machines.  The 2019 and 2021 surveys show that the gambling formats are not that different.  The most popular games are Baccarat and Pok Deng (a card game similar to Blackjack), followed by the slot machine.  The way people gamble is the same way they do in casinos, except that they can play constantly, anywhere, anytime, and get hooked.

Other types of gambling like sports bets, or online lottery, with the number of games and winnings fixed, have been played online for a long time, but are now done through more channels.  

Online gambling: a danger as dreadful as COVID-19

According to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi, the most obvious and ever-intensifying problem of online gambling is the increasing number of players from 800,000 players in 2019 to 1.9 million in 2021.  The 1.1 million additional players came during COVID-19. According to interviews, some of these people are new gamblers, while some used to be offline players who had to switch to play online because the casinos and betting houses are closed as a result of the pandemic.

The gaming revenue has also significantly increased. In 2019, gross gaming revenue was estimated at 20 billion Baht, while the 2021 estimate went up by 100 billion, showing that not only has the number of players increased but so has the frequency of play.

Online gambling behavior

From interviews with online gamblers as to their reasons for online gambling, about 90% of the players cited its convenience and ubiquity, followed by variety, fast money transfer, friends’ persuasion, appealing incentive, secrecy, and assurance that one wouldn’t get arrested.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi added that 99% of the players play mostly on their mobile phones, and less on tablets or PCs.  Each person may play on multiple devices.  They may play on a laptop computer or a PC when they’re home, and on their cell phones when out and about, because it’s convenient.  This finding corresponds with the numbers of the Bureau of Statistics’ survey that most Thais own a cell phone, but the number of people owning a desktop or laptop computer is still much smaller.

However, people who enjoy online gambling tend to be younger than those who play offline, because they are already familiar with the use of these technologies.

Big data – the pitfall for online gamblers

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi said that online gambling will have a far more severe impact than its offline equivalent because online players’ behavior will be tracked and become part of the big data to formulate targeted promotions to lure them back to play more. Let’s say if they have not gambled for a while, they’ll be constantly motivated to return to play.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi pointed out that the major loophole is the easy access to both domestic and international websites owned by both Thais and foreigners, with a wide variety of formats, making it difficult to catch and suppress, especially those registered abroad.  The websites can only be blocked.  Once their websites are blocked, the operators can easily launch new websites.

Online gambling – an imminent danger during online classes

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi further noted that at present, the online gambling problem has not been analyzed with other factors to find a suitable management approach.

First and foremost, it is the young generation that needs immediate attention. Access to these gambling sites may need to be blocked, and programs to help with parental control may need to be deployed in the same way when there was a game addiction issue with kids. Also, young people need to be taught how to think rationally, especially teenagers who like challenges, and love to win.  They should learn that winning in gambling is nothing to be proud of and that there are more important things for them to win and be proud of themselves in the long run.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi pointed out that one challenge for Thai youth is the lack of space for their creativity and activities to pull them away from online gambling.  Young people are bursting with energy that needs to be released, so adults need to find them a stage, or other creative activities to be engaged with.  

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi predicted that some of those who switched from offline gambling because of COVID-19 may continue to play online.  Some may go back offline because of the familiar environment and the socializing aspect of it.  Playing online may make them feel isolated. People who continue to play online maybe because they have to work and can play at other times and there is no need to travel.  However, the young generation who started online gambling will not quit, because they are already hooked and never had experience playing in an actual casino or gambling den.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi added that online gambling has been growing for a while, but it can be said that the COVID-19 pandemic that requires social distancing and working from home, coupled with strict law enforcement against illegal gambling has propelled the number of online gamblers to grow exponentially, i.e. 135 percent growth in 2021 compared to that of 2019 according to the survey. 

This finding is in line with the global online gambling trend in the past 5-10 years. The global gambling market has seen steady growth in online gambling, with the number skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic, making online gambling a global problem. 

Time to overhaul “gambling laws”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi suggested that the government should seriously address this problem, and think out of the box because the socio-economic contexts have changed dramatically.  Clear guidelines should be set to prevent the danger from online gambling which comes in all shapes and forms.

Currently, Thailand does not have specific laws or penalties for online gambling, but only gambling-related laws that have been in place since 1935.  Even with revisions, the provisions are still obsolete, ambiguous, and the penalties are weak.  Policymakers and responsible parties should set clear, comprehensive, and timely measures.  For instance, currently, a court order is needed to block gambling websites, so it can’t be done instantly.  And this is not solving the problem at the root cause either.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nualnoi added that what we see here is a global phenomenon. In some countries, financial laws are also considered.  Penalties can be imposed during financial transactions.  In places where gambling is legal, the levying of taxes is examined.  In the case of Thailand, even if gambling is done on a computer, and money is transferred, accounts are opened in Thailand, or it could be other forms of payment through purchases or something more complicated and they need to be watched.

The sense of kinship and warmth found in the Chula community is priceless and a treasure worth keeping.

Prof. Dr. Pornanong Aramwit Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chulalongkorn University

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