‘Women and Online Gambling – Slots of Fun?’

"The alarm went off on my phone, which signalled that I had to collect the kids from school. But I still had a couple of minutes - plenty of time to make a trade on a greyhound race. I placed the trade and watched the odds jump up and down on the screen, and then eventually settle, signifying that the race had finished.

I'd lost £95."

But this isn’t the start of a story about a downward spiral into gambling addiction and debt. In fact, when this particular ‘bad day’ happened, I’d been living in the world of sports trading and gambling for the best part of a year, and by treating it as a job, had earned enough to pay the rent and bills. But the up and down nature of it was starting to lose its appeal, and although my experience had been (modestly) financially positive, I was becoming more aware of those who weren’t so lucky.

Gambling in the UK is a £14.5bn industry that, like alcohol and smoking, can cause harm. Gambling research, across a number of disciplines, has looked at the addictive nature of gambling and how, when it becomes problematic, it can lead to financial hardship, crime, and damage to relationships. Approaching gambling from this addiction model focuses on a relatively small number of gamblers, implying that ‘recreational’ gambling, on the other hand, is non-problematic. It also unavoidably highlights the experiences of men, since it is men who make up the majority of problem gamblers.

However, statistics show that women gamble just as much as men, and whilst stories of women who have lost thousands of pounds gambling can be easily found in the news, ostensibly women gamble to a less problematic extent. But this assumes that the harms of gambling are mostly financial. As a female gambler myself, I felt this was not always the case. I hadn't lost money, but what had I been doing with my time? I could have played slots online for hours using tiny stakes, and not lost very much money, if at all. But was that an enjoyable leisure activity? Was I experiencing harm, even if not financial? When I started my PhD, I wanted to challenge assumptions and explore what harms women might be subject to that the research on problem gamblers was overlooking.

Online gambling, being easy to pick up and put down, can be conveniently integrated into many people’s everyday life. Research has shown that women’s leisure time tends to be more fragmented than men’s and that, even in the 21st century, women still carry the greater burden for household and caring responsibilities. Which could mean that harms, such as feelings of guilt over gambling, may be experienced differently by women than by men.

My research also looks at the marketing techniques used by the gambling industry, particularly TV advertising, and how they are directed specifically towards women, with images of sassy slots playing women and friends playing bingo together on their phones. It is clear that online gambling markets itself on fun and sociability, but do women want to connect socially when they gamble online? And if so, are they getting that? Indications are that some players are experiencing negative talk, bullying and superficial friendships in the chat rooms, and that far from being a benign leisure pursuit which fulfils players’ needs for social connectedness, it could actually be a toxic online space.

Given that our consumption habits have changed dramatically over the past year, examining the role and potential harms of online gambling has never been more important, and there is a particular need to redress the balance which currently tips towards a prioritisation of male problem gambling.

If you are a woman who plays slots or bingo online and would like to take part in this research, please go to the information page to register your contact details.

Suzanne Baggs is a Doctoral Teaching Assistant and Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Society and Culture. Her research explores both the positives and negatives of women’s participation in online gambling and gaming sites and forms part of her PhD.