Findings from a recent study into the use of responsible gambling tools in Australia’s online gambling space will likely have researchers and regulators questioning the effectiveness of current responsible gambling tools and policy.
Researchers from the Sydney’s Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic were recently granted unprecedented access to nearly 40,000 customers’ account data from six leading sports and race wagering sites in Australia. With this data on hand, they sought to find out several key questions.
How many online gamblers actually use the responsible gambling tools available to them, such as deposit limits and ‘timeouts’ or ‘take-a-breaks’? And once someone sets a limit, do they alter or remove it? And lastly, are players who use these tools different to those who don’t — are they older or younger, male or female, do they wager often or infrequently?
How many online gamblers actually use responsible gambling tools?
Unsurprisingly, the study found that the majority of customers (83 percent) did not use any responsible gambling tools available to them such as deposit limits, timeouts, and self-exclusion. For those that did, deposit limits were the most commonly used tool at 16 percent, but the study also showed that many customers (25 percent) using limits ended up increasing their limit amount, making it less restrictive than before, whilst a small percentage (3 percent) removed their limits altogether.
Figure note: This figure shows the proportion of all customers who didn’t use any of the tools relative to the proportion who used just deposit limits and those who used timeouts and/or self-exclusion (as well as possibly deposit limits).
Figure note: This figure shows the number of customers who, within the one-year window studied by the research team (July 1st, 2018 – June 30th, 2019), increased, decreased, and removed their deposit limit. Some customers may be included in two or more of these frequency counts as many made different change types over the year (e.g., increasing and removing their limit).
These findings will likely have researchers and regulators questioning the effectiveness of current responsible gambling tools and policy.
How do those who use responsible gambling tools differ from those who don’t?
The study made another interesting find. Customers who didn’t use any responsible gambling tools, and those who only used deposit limits were similar in almost every way. Whilst those who used timeouts and self-exclusion (and potentially also deposit limits) were more likely to be younger, male, placed more bets, bet more money on average, deposited more money on average, won less, had fewer days without gambling, and had more variability in how much they gambled and won day-to-day.
This painted a clear picture: timeout/self-exclusion users appear to gamble in a more problematic way than other customers.
What other findings were interesting?
However, perhaps one of the most interesting findings from the study was something the researchers didn’t intend to look at when they first obtained the data, and that was the impact of a new Australian Government policy that required all online gambling sites to make their customers either set a deposit limit or actively opt out of setting one.
What the authors found was striking—in May of 2019 (the month when the policy came into effect), the number of limits set rose to 187 from an average of 5 limits per month in the preceding 10 months (see the below figure).
Figure note: This figure shows the impact of a policy change that made customers set a limit or opt-out of setting one on up subsequent uptake rates. The bars represent the number of deposit limits set each month by the customers of one gambling site (the others had already introduced a similar opt-out policy before the study period) throughout the study period (07/2018-/06/2019). The sharp increase in uptake seen in May 2019 corresponds with the introduction of the Australian government’s opt-out scheme.
What do all these findings tell us about the state of consumer protection for online gambling? Well, it’s clear that many online customers aren’t utilising the protection measures currently offered. This could be for several reasons, including the perception that they’re only for “problem gamblers” or a lack of awareness of the tools, but regardless of the reason more needs to be done by sites to promote these tools.
The study shines a light on a key limiting factor of existing tools: the ability to easily change and remove self-set limits. At the time of the study, all six sites ensured a two-week lag period between requesting a limit increase or removal and the change coming into effect, but clearly this wasn’t a sufficiently large hurdle to prevent customers from making these changes.
This finding begs several questions (the answers to which are beyond the scope of this article): are site-level limits the answer? Or should banks step in to allow people to set limits on their gambling expenditure that will apply across all sites?
The marked effect of the ‘opt-out’ limit setting policy demonstrated in this study has important implications. If such a minor, inexpensive change can result in a dramatic uptick in the adoption of limits, then the use of this strategy should be trialed for encouraging other responsible gambling behaviors, such as opting to ban gambling on one’s credit card(s).
Overall, this new study provides a comprehensive overview of how Australian customers are using the protection measures available to them. It’s clear there is much to be done to improve online gambling consumer protection, but this study points regulators and industry in the right direction.
The full journal article reporting this study is titled “Patterns and Correlates of Consumer Protection Tool Use by Australian Online Gambling Customers” and can be accessed here: https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fadb0000761
 This type of ‘opt-out’ strategy has been used in the organ donation sphere with mixed results, but has (to the authors’ knowledge) never been evaluated as a strategy to increase engagement with responsible gambling behaviours.
 This finding and the results displayed in the corresponding graph related only to one of the six gambling sites involved in the study as the five others had already implemented some version a ‘opt out’ system prior to May 2019.
The authors acknowledge the technical assistance provided by the Sydney Informatics Hub, a Core Research Facility of the University of Sydney.
Dr. Robert Heirene is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Gambling Treatment & Research Clinic, based within the Brain & Mind Centre, University of Sydney. His current research in the gambling field focuses the use and effectiveness of the consumer protection tools among online gambling customers. Along with Associate Professor Sally Gainsbury, he recently published a large-scale randomised control trial of messages to promote limit setting on Australian gambling sites. Read it here.
Email: [email protected]
Associate Professor Sally Gainsbury is a leader in gambling psychology research who focuses on using science to inform the development of responsible gambling strategies. Dr. Gainsbury is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Director of Australia’s only university-affiliated gambling treatment centre, the Gambling Treatment and Research Clinic.
Email: [email protected]