How Smartphones Fuel Gambling Addiction

Luke Whelan Fact Checked
Man lying in bed looking at phone
© damircudic / Getty Images

It’s no surprise that the activities we do on our phones can become addictive — everything from language apps to games to online shopping is explicitly designed to hook our attention and keep us coming back. You’ve almost certainly had the experience of spending more time on a social media app or online game than you expected to, whittling away hours you wanted to spend doing something else. 

One mobile activity, however, shows how your smartphone can lead to serious addiction and severely impact your life: online sports betting.   

What is online sports betting? 

Sports betting apps allow you to place a nearly infinite number of wagers on games and matches taking place all over the world, from college football to Premier League soccer. These include “prop bets,” which are wagers made during a game on an individual player’s performance or a specific stat, like whether a baseball pitch is a ball or a strike, as opposed to the overall outcome of the competition.  

Since the Supreme Court lifted a federal ban on sports betting in 2018, these apps have become legal in 38 states, many of which are eager to capitalize on the tax revenue. Even in states like Washington, where sports betting is still only legal in casinos on tribal land, enforcing people’s use of these apps is nearly impossible. 

And many people, including millions of young adults who have never gambled before, are getting hooked. Gambling addiction hotlines and treatment centers say they’ve seen a huge surge in volume since the ban was lifted. 

What is a behavioral addiction? 

Developing a dependency on an activity like sports betting falls into the category of behavioral addiction. These are patterns of behaviors that might have started out as pleasurable, but you continue to do them even after they begin interfering with your life or leading to adverse outcomes.  

Behavioral addictions look similar in the brain to drug or alcohol addictions. In fact, researchers have found that addictive behaviors activate the same reward centers as addictive substances. When you’re addicted to a drug or alcohol, you continue to use the substance, even though it’s harming you, to satiate a craving or avoid the physical symptoms of withdrawal. In the case of behavioral addiction, a similar process happens in the brain, but the need being met or the discomfort being avoided is psychological.  

“You might engage in the behavior to temporarily quiet those psychological urges for a short time, but then you start to get the urges and cravings again,” says Dr. Koriann Cox, a clinical psychologist and the clinical program director of the Intensive Outpatient Program at UW Medical Center – Northwest.  

These behaviors could also include things like sex, exercise, shopping and gaming, though behavioral addiction is a relatively new category. Currently, only gambling disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). (Compulsive sexual behavior is in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th revision, or ICD-11, but not in the DSM.) 

How smartphones fuel behavioral addiction 

The apps on our devices, from social media feeds to silly phone games, are explicitly designed to activate our brain’s reward system by triggering the release of dopamine, which, when it fades, causes psychological distress that we want to relieve by doing more of the activity. They then immediately prompt you to keep going with push notifications to “play another game” or “keep shopping” or by allowing you to keep scrolling forever for another funny video.  

“So many apps are designed to gamify everything, which primes these behaviors,” says Cox. 

While this might lead to a wasted evening for some people, it can be a lot more serious if you struggle with a serious addiction to a behavior like gambling.  

Sports betting apps will prompt you to bet on another game after the current one is over, and your credit card is synced up for easy access to funds. If you already struggle to control the impulse to keep placing bets, these design decisions make it nearly impossible to stop.  

“The fact that you can just continually bet even throughout a game, and if it’s not going well, you can chase your losses immediately, is a really scary prospect,” says Scott Graupensperger, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine, whose lab is studying the correlation between sports betting and mental health. 

On top of that, when you can pull your phone out at any time or any place — whether on the bus, in bed or even in the bathroom — it means there are no barriers to continuing the behavior you’re addicted to.  

“These compulsive behaviors can be engaged in so much more easily,” says Cox. “If you were addicted to gambling and before you had to go to a casino, well, now you’ve basically got a casino in your pocket.” 

How do you know if it’s an addiction? 

When it comes to smartphone use, it can be hard to discern the line between using your phone more than you want to and having a dependency that is impairing your life. Cox shared a few questions to help figure out if you’re dealing with a behavioral addiction.  

Is the behavior interfering with your life? 

If you are concerned about having a problem, one of the first questions you can ask, says Cox, is: “Is this thing that I’m doing getting in the way of the life that I want to have?”

This could mean, in the case of gambling, that you’re losing money that you need for living costs.

“If somebody’s spending a lot of money and is like, ‘I’m going to use my rent money to place this bet because I feel so good about this bet,’ what happens when you don’t win?” says Cox.

If you’re a college student who is so sucked into your sports betting app that you’re not going to class and failing your courses, that’s another clear sign you might have an addiction.  

One of the most definitive indications that your hobby has turned into an addiction is “chasing losses” or trying to win back money you’ve lost.

“If they go back the next day to try to win back money they lost previously, that’s a very problematic pattern,” says Graupensperger. 

Is it affecting your relationships? 

Addictions rarely just affect the person engaged in the behavior. They also ripple out to the people around them, breaking their trust and often causing serious financial issues.

“If my partner is open with me about going to the casino, and I know that they’re spending money, they’re probably less likely to be hiding it,” says Cox. “If that person tells me they’re going to the casino on Saturday, but they’re not telling me they’re going on Wednesday, that’s a problem.” 

With online activities, it can be even easier to hide that, say, you’re not just placing a bet on the Super Bowl but also basketball games and tennis matches going on at the same time. Or that you’re not actually checking email at your desk but placing more bets.  

That’s not to mention that day-to-day impact on a relationship that being sucked into your phone can have on your partner or family. It’s unlikely you’re able to be a present, supportive partner or parent when you’re either on your phone or thinking about the next time you can be.   

Is it affecting your mental health? 

Behavioral addictions often intersect with other mental health problems. If you notice that you’re irritable when you’re not using your sports betting app or often engage in the activity when you’re feeling anxious or depressed, that can be a sign of addiction.

Graupensperger’s lab is carrying out a study that surveys young adults every two weeks for a year about their sports betting activity, mental health and well-being, and substance use.

“It’s showing robust associations between problem sports betting behavior and mental health disorders,” he says. “You name it: depression, anxiety, stress, psychological distress, even loneliness.” 

How to get help for a behavioral addiction 

If you’re struggling with a behavioral addiction like sports betting, don’t hesitate to reach out for support.  

Talk to your doctor about it 

If you’re not sure where to start looking for help, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Your doctor is equipped to talk to you about it without judgment and help you find resources or mental health professionals to help you with whatever is interfering with your life. 

Call a hotline 

If it’s not feasible to make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional, don’t hesitate to use resources like the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1.800.GAMBLER for help. A counselor will give you a self-assessment, can answer questions you might have and can help you find treatment in whatever state you live in.  

If you’re having a mental health crisis because of your addiction, call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text TALK to 741741. [linkto:] 

Join a support group 

Being part of a community while dealing with an addiction can make the recovery process much less isolating. Gamblers Anonymous and many other support groups for everything from video games to sex addiction exist to create a space to be with other people struggling with a similar addiction. 

“If someone goes to a meeting and they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t like that,’ I highly recommend that they go to a different meeting,” says Cox. “A different day or a different place is going to have a different makeup of people, so you just might not have found the meeting that fits with you yet.” 

Talk to a therapist  

A therapist can help you develop behavioral strategies or techniques that reduce the harm of addiction, such as only taking a certain amount of cash to the casino and leaving your credit card at home. Of course, creating these kinds of barriers on mobile devices is even more challenging, but there are still tools you can try, from app limits to lock boxes or pouches that prevent you from using your phone.  

Remember, the problem is bigger than just you  

Addictions are more than just a problem for the individuals who suffer from them; they are a problem for society — and often made worse by societal forces, too. 

“A public health lens hasn’t been taken to sports betting,” he says. “It’s an important public health concern with exploding rates of sports betting and the correlation between gambling and mental health issues and substance use.” 

If you struggle with controlling sports betting or any other behavior, you are not alone. Don’t let guilt or shame prevent you from getting help.