How to avoid a student gambling and gaming crisis

There's a dark side to a wholesale shift online. Katie Tarrant has a call to action to support students whose online activity may have become an addiction.

Katie Tarrant is Student Journalism Manager at YGAM.

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We have all had a glimpse of the dedicated gamer’s world recently. Our physical movement has been limited to a brisk walk, we spend hours behind the computer screen and our social interactions are operating almost entirely in the digital world.

It is possible that the majority of student gamers and gamblers have maintained a healthy relationship with their online activities during the pandemic. We should hope so, given that the Young Gamers and Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM)’s research found that 79 per cent of university students play digital games and 264,000 students in the UK are at some risk from gambling.

But with 88,000 students already defined as problem gamblers, and 86 per cent of YGAM’s sample saying that the last thing they do before they go to sleep is check a digital device, it would not be surprising if isolation and increased time in the digital world has had a negative impact on those already vulnerable to harm.

In fact, a report from Blackbullion in January, reflecting on how financial wellbeing impacts students, found that 75 per cent of students worry about their finances and 48 per cent have previously considered, or are considering, dropping out of university or deferring a year due to financial constraints. This means that it is likely that even more students are at risk of gambling harm currently than YGAM’s findings in 2019.

Sarah Hodge, a lecturer in Cyberpsychology at Bournemouth University, believes that students in general are particularly vulnerable to gambling and gaming related harm because of the change of routine and financial responsibility that comes with induction to university:

Suddenly, you can control your schedule, you can decide what you’re spending your money on. You could choose to deck your room out in all the gaming equipment, or spend all your student loan on betting, without anyone really knowing”.

A hidden epidemic?

Where a student suffering from alcohol or drug abuse might visibly be recovering from a perpetual hangover or smell of the substance, nobody in the average student gambler’s life has access to their bank account but themselves.

Where a student with an eating disorder might set off alarm bells for the flatmate who notices their eating habits have drastically changed, the student gamer could easily spend all day online behind closed doors with their friends none the wiser.

This places the onus on the student to come forward if they think they are at risk of harm. Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, in 2019 two-thirds of YGAM’s research sample said that they tend to keep issues or problems to themselves.

This proportion increases for those who are moderate risk or problem gamblers, as well as those who game multiple days throughout the week. While in part this may be due to a lack of confidence or opportunity to open up to someone, it may also be that students are unaware of the support available. And that is if they even realise there is a problem, as Sarah Hodge explains:

It’s about recognising the harms – which is hard when no one talks about it. You often hear people talk about addiction very flippantly because we all have urges to chase feelings like the high you get from gambling, but they’re not on the addiction level.”

Sucked in

This was certainly the case for Jach (not their real name), a student from Coventry University who attended one of YGAM’s student engagement events last year:

I get so sucked into those level up purchases. I’d be gaming for ages at a time, forget how much I’d done it and then oops, there goes my student loan.”

Not every symptom of gaming and gambling related harm is hidden or hard to recognise. YGAM’s data in 2019 found that respondents who identified as “at risk” were typically exhibiting some signs of stress, anxiety, or sleep deprivation and may have noticed a negative impact on their academic performance.

Nevertheless, the hidden nature of gambling and gaming disorders is something that Sue Friday has noticed in her eleven years as a university lecturer, six years of which she spent directly overseeing student concerns. As she now spends as much time calling students to discuss their wellbeing concerns as she does teaching them law, she worries about how the pandemic is affecting student gamers and gamblers:

You can imagine that students quite often see gaming and gambling as a welcome distraction, but that’s got to be more intense in the current situation, where they’re forced to be insular and isolated.

I’m seeing and hearing a lot of students, because of the pandemic, feeling disengaged and demotivated, and so I worry about whether they’re taking this distraction too far. I also don’t think they would necessarily notice it as a problem but, if it starts to take over, it’s a huge wellbeing issue. But it’s not one that I’d say is on universities’ radars.”

Another key factor that keeps these behaviours in the dark can be perpetuated by the university itself. Although staff within lots of departments are often more than willing to listen to student concerns, a survey conducted by YGAM among staff at 23 universities found that over two-thirds of staff were not confident discussing a student’s gaming and gambling behaviours with them.

Taking action

As Hodge stresses, there is no one type of person susceptible to addiction. Gaming and gambling related harm is something that should be on the university’s radar, and the steps to avoid a wellbeing crisis are two-fold.

First, it is vital that we open the dialogue because, more than ever while we live in a world with reduced face-to-face contact, the burden is on the student to seek help for themselves. Universities should have an open-door policy that is well-informed on what this harm looks like and encourages students to come forward to talk.

For example, students told YGAM that awareness events on campus made them feel more confident in recognising harm in themselves and others – and in realising that stigma and taboo may have clouded what they thought of as a “typical” gamer or gambler.

YGAM is currently building several resources to open this dialogue, from Instagram posts to exploratory articles. Vitally, these are made by students, for students, brought together in one central hub where students can engage in quizzes and surveys to increase their understanding of their gaming and gambling habits.

Next, universities have a responsibility to make sure their staff are trained to address these issues. Wellbeing staff in institutions such as Bournemouth University have received training from Gamcare, and YGAM’s University & Student Engagement programme has introduced staff across the country to the hidden signs of gaming and gambling harm.

Already in 2021 YGAM have held two training sessions with staff at the University of Birmingham and the charity is looking to offer this certificated training to other universities across the UK. These online sessions focus on equipping staff with the understanding of how to spot signs of gaming and gambling related harm and understand how they can provide better support to their students.

It is no secret that student wellbeing services are struggling and underfunded, but they must be equipped to deal with some of the most hidden addictions and disorders on campus. Let’s support students to enjoy a university experience free from gaming and gambling harm.

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