What is Problem Gambling?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is problem gambling?

Problem gambling includes all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt, or damage personal, family, or vocational pursuits. The symptoms include increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, “chasing” losses, and loss of control manifested by the continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences. In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide. For more information on the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for gambling addiction, please see the DSM-5 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gambling-disorder/what-is-gambling-disorder.

Isn't problem gambling just a financial problem?

No. Problem gambling is a mental health problem that has financial consequences. If you pay all the debts of a person affected by problem gambling, the person still has a gambling problem or gambling disorder. The real issue is they have an uncontrollable urge to gamble.

Isn't problem gambling really the result of irresponsible or weak-willed people?

No. Many people who develop problems have been viewed as responsible and strong by those who care about them. Precipitating factors often lead to a change in behavior, such as retirement or job-related stress.

Who is at risk for problem gambling?

Anyone who gambles can develop problems. This is why it’s important to be aware of the risks and to gamble in a responsible way, if you choose to gamble. When gambling behavior interferes with finances, relationships, or the workplace, a serious problem already exists.

Do casinos, lotteries, and other types of gambling “cause” problem gambling?

No. Gambling problems develop when people who are at risk for addiction repeatedly gamble. Although the availability of gambling is necessary for problem gambling to develop, it alone isn’t sufficient to cause the development of gambling problems. Risk for addiction may be due in part to a person’s genetic tendency to develop addiction, their inability to effectively cope with normal life stress, or even their social environment and moral attitudes about gambling.

What types of gambling cause the most problem gambling?

Any type of gambling can become problematic, just as someone with an alcohol problem can get drunk on any type of alcohol. But some types of gambling have different characteristics that may exacerbate gambling problems. While these factors are still poorly understood, anecdotal reports indicate that one risk factor may be a fast speed of play. In other words, the faster the wager to response time with a game, the more likely players may be to develop problems with a particular game. A strong predictor of problem gambling is the diversity of games people play. When people play a lot of different types of gambling games, they’re more likely to have experienced gambling problems.

What is the responsibility of the gaming industry?

Everyone who provides gambling opportunities has a responsibility to develop policies and programs to address underage and problem gambling issues. The gaming industry should work to identify and eliminate gambling games that might exacerbate gambling problems. The gaming industry should support a transparent gambling environment, for example, by explaining odds of winning and average return to player, that’s fair and free of fraud.

Can you have a gambling problem if you don't gamble every day?

The frequency of a person’s gambling doesn’t determine whether they have a gambling problem. Even though a person may only go on periodic gambling binges, the emotional and financial consequences can still be evident in the individual’s life, including the effects on their family.

How much money do you have to lose before gambling becomes a problem?

The amount of money lost or won doesn’t determine when gambling becomes problematic. Gambling becomes a problem when it causes a negative impact on any area of a person’s life.

How can a person be addicted to something that isn't a substance?

Although no substance is ingested, someone with a gambling problem gets the same effect from gambling as one might get from taking a drug or drinking alcohol. But just as tolerance develops to drugs or alcohol, a person with a gambling problem may find it takes more of the gambling experience to achieve the same emotional effect as before. This creates an increased urge for the activity and the person finds they have less ability to resist as the craving grows in intensity and frequency. Likewise, when someone has a problem with gambling, they might experience symptoms of withdrawal when they attempt to cut back. Like other expressions of addiction, withdrawal symptoms might lessen if the person gambles again, which makes recovery difficult.

Learn more by watching this one-minute explanation by Dr. Howard Shaffer.

Are individuals with gambling problems usually addicted to other things too?

People with one addiction are more at risk to develop another. Some individuals with gambling issues also find they have a problem with alcohol or drugs. This doesn’t mean that if you have a gambling problem you’re guaranteed to become addicted to other things. Some people with gambling problems never experience any other addiction because no other substance or activity gives them the same feeling as the gambling does. There also appears to be evidence of family patterns regarding dependency, as many people experiencing problems with gambling report one or both parents had a drinking and/or gambling problem.

How widespread is problem gambling in the U.S.?

Roughly 2 million U.S. adults (1%) are estimated to meet criteria for severe gambling problems in a given year. Another 4 million to 6 million (2%-3%) would be considered to have mild or moderate gambling problems; that is, they don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria for gambling addiction but meet one or more of the criteria and are experiencing problems due to their gambling behavior. Importantly, the experience of gambling harm occurs across the spectrum of harm, not just among those with severe problems.

How widespread is gambling in the U.S.?

Approximately 85% of U.S. adults have gambled at least once in their lives; 60% in the past year. Some form of legalized gambling is available in 48 states plus the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The two states without legalized gambling are Hawaii and Utah.

How do I know when someone is addicted to gambling?

The three Cs are a helpful way to remember the core features of addiction. Someone with a gambling problem will typically (1) experience a loss of Control over their gambling, (2) Crave gambling, and (3) continue to gamble despite negative Consequences. Fortunately, problem gambling is a treatable condition and many people recover and lead happy, productive lives.

Can children or teenagers develop gambling issues?

Yes. Children and teens can develop gambling problems. Some U.S. states allow children under 18 to gamble on certain games, like charitable gambling, and youth also participate in illegal forms of gambling, such as gambling on the internet or betting on sports in states where it’s not legal for them to do so. Children and teens also engage in informal gambling with their friends and family. Therefore, it’s not surprising that research shows a vast majority of kids have gambled before their 18th birthday, and that children may be more likely to develop issues related to gambling than adults. Although debate continues on this issue, there appear to be multiple causes of gambling and problem gambling among youth. Parental attitudes and behavior play a role. Age of exposure plays a part as well — research shows that adults who seek treatment for problem gambling report having started gambling at an earlier age than adults who gamble without experiencing problems. So, it’s important to prevent all underage gambling.