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Caught in the gambling Web

Access, anonymity of Internet may compound addiction problems

By Lara Farrar
CNN

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Many online gambling Web sites are geared toward college-age students.

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BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- He dreamed that with the next game, the next jackpot, the next click of his mouse, he would solve all his problems. But as he got sucked deeper into the anonymous world of online gambling, his problems only got worse.

"There was no boundary between me and what was going on inside the computer screen," said the recovering gambling addict, who asked not to be identified. "I was ill with a compulsion, even though I was losing $5,000 and $10,000 and $15,000."

Gambling has been around for centuries, from gruff Wild West saloons to glitzy Las Vegas casinos. But the Internet has taken this age-old game of chance to a new plane -- allowing anyone to place bets, anytime, from anywhere.

Online, it has become harder both to monitor gamblers (and perhaps, for gamblers to monitor themselves) and gambling firms that operate largely beyond the reach of regulators.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week resoundingly approved a measure barring banks and credit card companies from making payments to Internet gambling sites. (Full story)

"This is really the worst form of gambling you can have: all the ills that come from gambling without any of the regulation," said Rep. Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who co-sponsored the bill.

The tremendous reach, instant gratification and anonymity of the Internet compound the potential problems, say experts. (Watch how easy it is to gamble online -- 2:56)

"You have a lot of individuals who are not prone to gambling without the ability of the Internet," said Ken Winters, a psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota. "So with more people, you are going to get these new recruits who become problem gamblers."

'A click away'

According to Winters, Internet gambling is a modern manifestation of man's timeless attraction to playing cards.

"What the Internet has done is revved up the excitement," he said. "You are a click away from playing for big money."

Previously, people would have had to fly or drive to casinos, generally restricted to a few locales. Now, gamblers can access "online casinos" 24 hours a day, from work or their homes.

"If it is casino gambling, they have had to think about it and ... drive for two hours," said Dot Duda, director of the Prevention and Recovery Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "But online gambling, they don't want to be gamblers. They promised themselves they would get off, and they won't do it again. But there is such a pull."

The far greater accessibility has increased the "health risk" of gambling, Winters said.

"You have increased the power of the magnet to include a larger group of people, and the concern is that this is going to get some people into the clutches of an addictive process," he said.

Another feature that makes online gambling so seductive is the lack of social controls. Gamblers needn't take long trips to Atlantic City, New Jersey, or venture into crowded casinos; they can gamble on their own, often without others knowing.

"If you have that urge for that pleasure you are looking for, and your computer is sitting right there, you are going to use it," Duda said.

College students susceptible

Even though much of the evidence cited is still anecdotal, Winters said the majority of online gamblers seem to be from a younger generation, with college-age students in particular susceptible.

"The increase in Web sites for just gambling has skyrocketed," he said. "Many of them are geared toward young people."

According to Laurajane Fitzsimons, assistant director of counseling at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, online gambling addictions are widespread and sometimes well ingrained on college campuses.

Collegians are "developmentally prone for this type of gambling," said Fitzsimons, who has pioneered efforts on her campus to educate students and parents about the risks of online gambling.

"They want to be seen as grown-up and that they can handle their own finances," she said, adding that she once treated a student with $35,000 in gambling debts. "This is a way to win it big instead of working hard. A lot of our students are very bright students who get into trouble with gambling. They think they can beat the system."

Since most students already spend hours at a time sitting in front of a computer screen, problem gambling can be hard to identify, Fitzsimons said. She said many students who have gambling problems are often dealing with depression and other mood disorders.

But the most tell-tale sign of a gambling problem may be a person's finances -- whether he or she has had to sell valuables or find other ways to make up for their losses.

"You have to follow the money and how people get it," Fitzsimons said. "Oftentimes when people have gambling problems, they turn to illegal means or other means to pay off their gambling debts."

'A lifetime recovery process'

Gambling addictions can be not only financially but also psychologically devastating.

Duda, who has treated patients for more than 20 years, said an aggressive approach to treatment is especially important for online gambling addicts, because the Internet's accessibility makes for a high risk of relapse.

Treatment usually includes individual and group therapy, focusing on both gamblers' actions and emotional problems. Meanwhile, a relative, friend or outsider usually takes control of the individual's finances, while software installed on computers prevent the downloading of online casinos' software.

"They have to want to stop," Duda said of such addicts. "Think about doing the same thing every morning, your morning routine, and trying to change it. It is hard."

Not only is it important to address the addiction, Duda said, but also it is crucial to treat the individual, who might be dealing with a mood disorder or substance abuse issues as well.

"We try to look at the person, think about if there is depression, other things going on with them," she said. "We spend a lot of time trying to get them to change that behavior."

Treatment can last anywhere from several months to more than a year, depending on a person's response to therapy. Often, Duda said, gambling addicts leave and come back -- having realized they cannot solve the problem on their own.

"They don't understand that compulsion, and that is when it can either put them over the edge or they win, and they remember their wins," Duda said.

Gambling addicts can and do win this fight. The gambling addict mentioned above said he hasn't gambled in a year and nine months. But he and Duda concur that the struggle continues, regardless.

"You are going to be a recovering gambler," Duda said. "You are never going to be able to gamble safely any more than an alcoholic drinks safely. It is a lifetime recovery process."

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