Looking for ways to fill the hours, the pandemic has caused a perfect storm for student gamblers. But some fear their habit to alleviate boredom could be spiralling into addiction.

Looking for ways to fill the hours, the pandemic has caused a perfect storm for student gamblers. But some fear their habit to alleviate boredom could be spiralling into addiction.

It’s a Friday when I call Danny, a 22-year-old PhD student at the University of Leeds. I ask him how his evening is going. He smirks: “I’ve actually just been putting some bets on.”

“Have you?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s a Friday!”

For Danny, a Friday not blighted by a pandemic might involve having a few pints at the pub or going on a night out with his friends. “There would always be someone knocking about,” he says. But in lockdown, a Friday night looks quite different. “When I’ve finished work I’ll have a look at all the games, pick out the ones I think are bankers, then bang the bets up,” he tells me. “And then later if I’ve had a few drinks, I’ll just be like, ‘Fuck it, let’s bang another one on.’”

Gambling isn’t uncommon among students. Research published in September 2019 found that 47 per cent of students had gambled in the past 12 months. Of these, 16 per cent were at risk of becoming problem gamblers, while eight per cent were already problem gamblers. 65 per cent of students who’d gambled said that they did so just to have “something to do”. It’s unsurprising, then, that many are gambling more often due to lockdown boredom.

Pre-pandemic, Danny dabbled in gambling: “I would bet an odd fiver on a weekend here and there, mainly on football.” But stuck in lockdown with nothing to do, he is now betting five times as much as he did before the pandemic. “It’s just for a bit of excitement,” he says. “It makes a weekend actually feel like a weekend.”

Danny certainly isn’t the only student amping up his betting habit in lockdown. It’s a perfect storm: with endemic loneliness, unspent disposable income, and limited reasons to get out the house, students like Danny all over the country are turning to gambling just for something to fill the hours with. 

“Separated from friends or being stuck at home with families is very hard at a life stage where everything is naturally geared towards driving forward in life,” explains Liz Karter, a gambling addiction expert. “Many are very lonely and longing to find partners, but lockdown makes it impossible. And frequently, students are scared for the future and the impact the pandemic and lockdown will have had on their studies and employment prospects.”

Katie*, 20, a student at the University of Liverpool, cast the occasional bet before lockdown. But like Danny, she has recently gotten into the habit of betting on multiple matches every weekend – even if it is just small stakes. “I’ve started depositing more money in my bet365 account and betting more because, well, there’s nothing else to do. I’ve put around £45 in my account in total, with half of that being deposited within the past few months,” she says. “If you bet on football, it makes watching the matches on TV more interesting. I’ll just sit and watch the football all weekend and bet on quite a few matches that I never would have bet on before.”

Callum*, 24, a student at Leeds, also gambled before the pandemic, first betting while still in college. “I would study in the local Starbucks with my friends, then we’d take breaks and go to the local betting shops,” he recalls. Callum says he then managed to get out of this habit after seeing some of his friends lose significant amounts of money – one losing around £9,000 online – and went a few years gambling only occasionally.

I ask Callum how much money he’s lost from gambling. “I make a point out of not keeping track of my profits and losses because the thought of how much I’ve lost over the years kind of makes me feel a bit sick,” he says. “But it’s in the thousands.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Callum has found himself gambling more again. “Playing online poker with my mates was the only way of maintaining some sort of social life,” he explains. “I would only be comfortable at this point losing maybe £20 or £30, but I justified it as I would otherwise have spent that money on a night out.” 

Danny makes a similar point: “I don’t really spend my disposable income anymore, so I guess I feel less sad about losing money now. Thirty quid is like a night out. So now if I lose that, I’m just like, oh well.

Of course, gambling isn’t a problem in and of itself. In theory, there isn’t really any harm in spending money which would have otherwise gone on beers and Ubers on a few weekend bets. But the fact remains that in practice, it’s often difficult to know when to stop: 16 per cent of student gamblers admitted to gambling more than they could afford. Karter makes the point that “gambling is a distraction from distressing thoughts and feelings, until, of course, they lose too much time and money, loss-chasing starts, and this only aggravates their distress”.

Danny says he’s not an addict (although he adds a pointed “yet”), but remains very conscious of the times where his gambling teeters on the brink of becoming something potentially problematic. “Sometimes when I’m on a walk with a friend on a Saturday I’m just on my phone, checking the scores, while I’m mid-conversation,” he admits.

Katie, too, acknowledges the pitfalls of her gambling habit: “I put my small stakes on, so I’m sensible – well, sensible-ish – and I’m still on a loss,” she says. “There’s only one winner when it comes to betting, and that’s the people who run the accounts. Everyone knows that, but it’s just the what if?

While Danny and Katie still feel (largely) in control of their gambling, Callum has found himself struggling to stop. “I began to lose money I wasn’t comfortable losing. Then I started betting on football during the week in the hopes of winning more money to bet on the UFC on the weekends,” he tells me. “Even though I was losing, I loved the rush I was getting.” Callum has also struggled with managing his ADHD during lockdown, which has had a knock-on effect on his gambling habit: “Before the pandemic, I had ways of managing my urges and addictive personality. But now, my conventional ways of dealing with these are no longer possible and I guess the slide down the slope started.”

Help is available to anyone who feels as if their gambling habit is getting out of control. Karter suggests using software to block your access to gambling: “For the first couple of weeks, you need to keep your mind occupied and keep yourself busy. Establish a routine and stick to it. Make sure you eat well and sleep well. Confide in one or two others you can trust to support you.” It’s also important to take baby steps and set achievable boundaries when dealing with addiction. Callum, for example, has made progress by forgoing the urge to bet on football and roulette during the week, now only gambling on a Saturday night.

Karter encourages recovering addicts to stay hopeful: “If you are struggling to imagine a life without gambling, take courage – everyone who is now in recovery from gambling addiction once felt as you do now,” she says. “It is entirely possible to stop gambling and to go on to live a healthy, happy life. And there is no better day than today to make a start.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities. 

Anyone struggling with gambling can visit the resources available at BeGambleAware.org or call their freephone 24-hour helpline on 0808 8020 133. 

Follow Serena Smith on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter