About one of nine Pennsylvania adults is gambling online on sports, casino games, or the iLottery, which helps explain the $1.4 billion generated last year among iCasino and digital sports betting operators, according to the first state survey of its kind.
The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, and Penn State University jointly released a report Friday highlighting a Penn State study of online gambling participation in the state.
Conducted between December 2020 and June 2021, the survey of 1,158 Pennsylvanians age 18 or older found that 11.1% had engaged in interactive gaming in the prior 12 months. Sports betting was the most common activity, indulged by 47% of those who gambled.
The study found 44.6% answered “yes” to at least one of five questions intended to identify whether individuals had potential for problem gambling, although that is not the same as saying they are problem gamblers. Experts in the field of problem gambling generally estimate that about 2% of the population have a serious disorder, but the study did not try to identify whether Pennsylvania’s rate is any higher as a result of the widespread prevalence of legal gambling opportunities.
If 11% are taking part in iGaming at least occasionally, however, it means more than 1 million are doing so, as there are some 10.4 million adults in Pennsylvania.
Study was required by expansion law
The study of iGaming’s impact was mandated by 2017 legislation that widely expanded Pennsylvania’s gaming industry into the online world, as well as in other forms, such as mini-casinos. The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) awarded a $461,000 contract to Penn State’s Glenn Sterner, an assistant professor of criminal justice, for the first year of study of the issue, and he has been approved to continue the work for at least two more years with additional surveys.
“We want to ensure we are offering all the resources we can at the state level to anyone who may be experiencing problem gambling behaviors,” Jen Smith, the department’s secretary, said in a press release. “Knowing the current iGaming trends in the state will help DDAP make informed decisions and help to spread awareness that treatment and resources are available to help when this recreational hobby becomes a more serious problem.”
A portion of the state’s gaming revenue that amounts to about $5 million annually is dedicated to problem gambling awareness, education, and treatment programs.
Opportunities to engage in the convenience of online gambling from home, the office, or anywhere have grown widely in Pennsylvania since operations began in 2019. There are now 17 online casino sites and 13 online sites for sports betting, plus the opportunity to play lottery games and fantasy sports by smartphone or computer.
The online casinos generated $1.1 billion in revenue last year and sports betting another $340 million, with more than 90% of sports wagers coming online.
Two-thirds of gamblers were male
Sterner told Penn Bets that the primary purpose of this first survey was to obtain a baseline for Pennsylvanians’ present involvement in and risks from the online gambling world, making it possible to track changes over time in future years.
“The key concern about this group is their gambling can happen anywhere, at any time, in any location,” he said. “When their gambling behavior can be hidden, there’s concern that issues with problem gambling are not as easily caught as if they’re out in public.”
Among the survey’s notable findings, in addition to the size of the population taking part:
- 47.7% of online gamblers had used that method for sports betting, followed in usage by 40.6% for table games, 29% for fantasy sports, 28.8% for slots, 20.7% for iLottery, and 16.4% for poker.
- About two-thirds of online gamblers were men (67.8%).
- The average age of those gambling was 38.
- More than half, or 51.3%, had college degrees of some sort, whether associate degrees or higher.
- On average, the gamblers spent $219 per week. Sterner said this figure is meant to indicate how much they risked, as opposed to how much they lost.
- 43.9% said online gaming represented their favorite form of gambling, but 45.9% of respondents also make in-person lottery purchases and 30.8% had visited a Pennsylvania casino in the prior year.
Trying to assess problem gambling
In assessing potential problem gambling, the survey asked five questions commonly used to gauge certain behaviors. Respondents were asked about the following, with the percentage of those who had answered in the affirmative (among those who had gambled) shown in parentheses:
- Had they attempted to reduce, control, or stop gambling in the prior 12 months? (29.7%)
- Had they gambled longer, or with more money or frequency, than intended? (22.9%)
- Had they needed to increase the amount of money gambled to get the same level of excitement? (12.8%)
- Had they found themselves preoccupied with gambling? (10.2%)
- Had they sold anything or borrowed money in order to gamble? (3.8%)
Sterner said none of the 1,158 respondents answered affirmatively to all five questions, which is a positive, but the 44.6% who answered yes to at least one of those questions was an indication of those who could be at risk.
“It doesn’t mean nearly half of these folks engaging in online gaming are problem gamblers, but it’s something we want to monitor and make sure we’re looking out for the health of those engaged in this,” he said.
The seriousness of the five questions are not equivalent, in that the nearly 30% who thought they might be overindulging don’t represent the same level of problem as the almost 4% who had actually gone into debt to cover their gambling.
“Borrowing money is an indication of something a little more advanced,” Sterner noted. “It’s also important to note that over half the people doing this have not exhibited any signs of problem gambling. .. But while it’s encouraging we don’t see any folks with all five behaviors, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned down the road.”
He said that data collection is ongoing from additional surveying, with the hope of doubling or tripling the number of respondents on an annual basis to increase statistical reliability for deeper drilling into the data. Once that happens, Sterner said, it could be possible to get a better handle on the rate of problem gambling in Pennsylvania compared to assumptions.
For those who believe they may have a gambling problem, help is available by calling 1-800-GAMBLER for information and referrals, or by using the state gaming board’s problem gambling website and/or considering voluntary self-exclusion, which can be from iGaming sites as well as brick-and-mortar casinos.