Less than a quarter of Ontario gamblers played online before the pandemic, while more than two-thirds did by the end

How COVID-19 Lockdowns Impacted Gambling Behavior In Ontario

A study on online gambling in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic is now available. Researchers completed the study in March, but its release came just a week after the launch of the province’s new privatized market.

Gambling During COVID-19 in Ontario is the work of the Responsible Gaming Council’s (RGC) Centre for the Advancement of Best Practices, in conjunction with the Ontario Gambling Research Society.

A reminder may be unnecessary for those who lived through it, but the province of Ontario shut down most public and recreational services on March 17, 2020. That included all land-based gaming and casinos. It also included in-person community out-reach programs by RGC such as its PlaySmart centres.

That downtime inspired the study, as it states in its summary:

“With the limited availability of land-based gambling venues and in-person gambling-related help services throughout the duration of the pandemic, RGC’s Centre for the Advancement of Best Practices (CABP), in collaboration with the Ontario Gambling Research Society (OGRS), rapidly conceived and implemented a three-wave provincial survey study to examine the impacts of COVID-19 on Ontarians’ gambling behaviours, financial stability, and mental health and wellbeing. The results of this work now provide an empirical record of the impact of COVID-19 on players, families, and communities.”

A story in three waves

The three waves of study included about 2000 participants each wave over spring, summer, and winter months of 2020.

A total of 608 Ontarians participated in all three legs of the project. That’s a better sample than some similar studies have received. However, it’s still a tiny number in a province with nearly 15 million residents. By some estimates, about 2% of the adult population, or 265,000 people are moderate risk gamblers.

RGC’s study says:

“Unique to the Wave 1 survey was Ontarian gamblers’ interest in and utilization of responsible gambling services. In Wave 2, variables assessing ethnicity, changes in online gambling, online grey market involvement, and attitudes toward returning to land-based gambling venues were added to the survey. In Wave 3, items assessing substance use and conditions for returning to land-based gambling venues were removed, and variables measuring participants’ income and the importance of responsible gambling online site features were added.”

It also addresses the limitations of the small number of participants:

“Moreover, due to the small sample sizes for many ethno-cultural groups, only sample-based comparisons for Caucasian/White, East Asian, and South Asian ethno-cultural groups (i.e., with the largest sample sizes) are presented in this report. Of note, Caucasian/White respondents comprise nearly three-quarters of the cross-sectional and longitudinal samples.”

About 29% of Ontarians identify as a visible minority as of the 2016 census.

Online gambling behavior during Ontario’s shutdown

With the land based casino closures in the province, it should be of little surprise that online gaming increased significantly. About 77% of the participants in Wave One initially reported being exclusively in-person gamblers. Fewer than 10% played exclusively online before the pandemic, while the remainder did a mix of both.

The number gambling online rose to 54% during the First Wave of the shutdown. Wave Two found that now 68% of participants were playing online, increasing further to 87% during Wave Three.

It should be of note with the recent launch of Ontario iGaming that lottery and raffle were actually the first most popular online gaming. Casino games became more popular as time passed, and land-based casinos remained unavailable.

“Among Ontarian gamblers, the most popular online gambling game played was lotto or raffle ticket draws in each wave. In Waves 1 and 2, the second most popular game was instant lottery, followed by electronic gaming machines in Wave 1 and sports betting in Wave 2. In Wave 3, casino table games were the second most popular game played, followed by instant lottery.”

Social and economic factors

Of the participants in the survey, 25% reported having significant changes to their employment and financial situation. That rose slightly in the second wave, to 28%. By the third wave, nearly 7% had lost their income entirely. Younger people and Ontarians of South-Asian descent were most impacted by job loss or reduced hours.

In the first wave of study, 32% of those who were gambling online said COVID-19, emergency measures, and isolation had influenced their play. That percentage held steady through the summer wave, but saw a statistically significant increase to 45% in the winter wave. Moderate and high risk gamblers, as well as those in the 25-44 age group reported COVID-19 being an influence in their gambling in the first two waves.

Ontarians of South-Asian descent, bucked the trend and peaked in the second wave. Then, 44% of that group reported that the virus and the subsequent emergency response had influenced their online play.

More changes to mood than gambling volume

Most interestingly, though, players’ consumption of gambling did not either skyrocket or plummet for clear pandemic-related reasons. What changed however, were the motives and mental health of the players.

A portion of the study included a Gambling Motives Questionnaire to determine why Ontarians were gambling online. The first and second wave had fairly similar motive rates with about 30% gambling online for money, 23% playing for fun, and 15% found online gambling exciting. All three areas almost doubled in the third wave of study with 54% playing for money, 44% playing for fun, and 41% were excited by thinking about winning the jackpot.

High risk gamblers were 5 times more likely than low risk gamblers to report playing for monetary gain during the second wave. That said, being high risk meant they responded affirmatively to more questions across the board.

Gambling motivations during Wave 2

Credit: RGC

Perplexingly, in the third wave low risk gamblers actually surpassed high risk gamblers in playing for money-related reasons.

Gambling motivations during Wave Three

Credit: RGC

Mental health and gambling during the pandemic

The first and second wave had the questions of “how do you feel about your life right now?”

On a scale of 0-10 (zero being most dissatisfied and 10 meaning most satisfied) the average was 6.2 and 6.5 in the first and second wave respectively. There was some disparity between surveyed groups:

“In both waves, life satisfaction generally increased with age. For example, 18-24 year olds reported the lowest average life satisfaction (Wave 2 = 5.9) while those over 65 years reported the highest life satisfaction (Wave 2 = 7.1). Men also consistently reported higher life satisfaction in both waves (Wave 2 = 6.7) compared to women (Wave 2 = 6.3). As well, Ontarians of East Asian descent (average = 6.1) and South Asian descent (average = 5.8) also reported significantly lower life satisfaction than respondents from other ethno-cultural backgrounds (average = 6.6) in Wave 2”

Anxiety and depression

Severe anxiety was reported the highest in the first wave at 9.6%. However, the combined total for some level of anxiety was at its highest in the third wave, at 53.8%.

Severe depression was also most reported in the third wave, at a rate of 5.7%. Here, the total rate for some level of depression was very similar in the second and third waves. The total was 51.6% in the second wave, dropping slightly to 50.3% in the third.

Another important finding of the study was the mental health of specifically online gamblers.

“Ontarians who had gambled online since the initial lockdown in March were significantly more likely to report moderate anxiety (17.9%) and moderately severe depression (10.2%) symptoms (but not severe symptoms) compared to those who had not gambled online in Wave 2. In Wave 3, the severity of mental health concerns did not differ between those who had gambled online in the past three months and those who had not. Mental health concerns were, however, directly related to online gambling risk level in each wave. That is, online gamblers who were at higher risk for gambling harms also reported experiencing greater levels of severe anxiety and depression concerns compared to those at lower risk.”

Risk levels for Ontarians in 2020

Of the participants in the RGC study only one in ten were screened as high risk gamblers. Of those the most likely to be high risk were men in the 25-44 age range.

The most high risk gamblers were online gamblers. Their risk doubled between the second wave at 11.6% high risk to the third wave at 32.7% high risk in the third.

“The demographic trends seen in the overall sample of gamblers generally held for online gamblers –men, younger adults, and Ontarians of East Asian and South Asian descent were most likely to screen for high risk gambling. The only exception is that while men were more likely to screen as high risk for gambling problems compared to women in Waves 1 and 2, there were no gender differences for gambling risk level among those who played online in the last three months in Wave 3.”

Responsible gambling during 2020 pandemic year

The majority of gamblers over the three study periods reported using responsible gambling methods.

Among these, the most common was to set a monetary limit before playing. 74.1% of players reported doing so. In Wave Two and Three, that increased to nearly 90%. In the same time period, 66% set time limits before playing and 70% of those said they managed to adhere to it.

Use of responsible gambling tools and strategies during the pandemic

Credit: RGC

The third wave assessment respondents reported responsible online gaming features such as credibility and consumer protection being important to them. They also valued information about how the games worked and their odds of winning.

43.8% of participants said they approved of the ability to self-exclude or initiate cool-down periods for online gaming websites.

“Among those who completed all three waves, limit-setting behaviours remained stable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This pattern differs from the cross-sectional findings which saw an increase in setting both money and time limits before starting gambling in Waves 2 and 3. Overall, rates for limit setting behaviours in the longitudinal data also appeared to be lower than those reported in the cross-sectional data—particularly those for setting time limits before gambling.”

Conclusions of the RGC study

With the launch of iGaming in Ontario this study seemed to be a premonition of what would come. The report states:

“In Wave 3, OLG.ca was the most frequently used online gambling platform (66.9%) among Ontarians who gambled online in the past three months, followed by Bet365 (7.0%) and PokerStars (5.6%). Those at high risk (46.1%) for gambling problems were more likely to list grey sites as their most frequent online gambling platform compared to those at lower risk (29.4%).”

At the beginning of the pandemic, over 90% reported some degree of gambling in person, whether exclusively or in combination with online play. That has obviously dropped substantially even now that land-based casinos have opened their doors. The shift to online gaming has been proven lasting. That should all but ensure the success of iGaming in Ontario, assuming it doesn’t fall to a legal challenge.

The RGC did highlight the proven personal accountability of players. Most players appear capable of regulating their own play and have the online and gaming literacy to calculate risk.

They also have recommended other player supports such as player safe guards, prevention messaging, and increasing the availability and visibility of responsible gambling resources and information.

Demographic factors

Young adults, especially males, have been listed as a priority group for responsible gaming. Ontarians of South Asian and East Asian descent had a greater level of representation in the study group. (Editor’s note: This latter fact is interesting, as US online casinos so far seem to have failed to persuade many Asian-Americans to make the switch from retail gambling.)

These groups also felt the most significant financial and employment impacts of COVID-19. That, in turn, means more motivation to play for money, which can create problems. They are also among the top-priority groups named by the RGC.

The RGC recommends targeting responsible gambling to the named priority groups in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way.

“RGC will also be working with COSTI Immigrant Services and Dyversity Inc. to develop a resource guide focused on gambling harm prevention for newcomers to Canada in English, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Punjabi, and Vietnamese”

RGC is already well-established at Ontario land based casinos, which are required to receive accreditation from the organization. The province will carry that standard online, where all iGaming operators will also require an updated and technologically appropriate RG check.

Although that’s one more hurdle in what’s already proving to be a confusing market, it’s one that should be worth the effort.

- Katy Jean is a columnist and freelance writer from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her writing has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and Canadian politics. She is most active from her Twitter account @katynotie.
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