(NewsNation) — As Super Bowl Sunday approaches, more Americans than ever before will have access to legal sports betting. One estimate, produced by the American Gaming Association, predicts that up to 50 million Americans will be placing bets on the game.
Sports betting has exploded since 2018, and 35 states now offer legal sports betting in some fashion, many allowing online gambling. One in five Americans placed a sports bet last year, per the Pew Research Center.
To advocates who argue for greater regulation of the industry, these trends are alarming.
“Commercialized gambling, including commercialized sports gambling, is a financial exchange….and it’s a form of financial exchange that’s mathematically stacked against the user,” said Les Bernal, National Director for Stop Predatory Gambling.
Americans were estimated to have lost more than $100 billion to sanctioned gambling in 2017.
But for some Americans, gambling is a bigger problem than occasionally losing money. Some people have developed addictions that make it difficult to stop gambling.
NewsNation spoke to experts and advocates about how to recognize you or a loved one has a gambling addiction and practical steps you can take to address that addiction and/or gamble more safely.
What to watch for
Gary Schneider, who serves on Stop Predatory Gambling’s board, spent decades struggling with his personal gambling addiction. He argued that gambling addictions are more difficult to detect than some other addictions.
“There are no true signs of a compulsive gambler that a normal person can see…there are no external signs of it,” he said, comparing it to addictions like alcohol or drug abuse that carry detectable physical symptoms.
Dr. James P. Whelan, who studies addiction and works at the University of Memphis’s Gambling Clinic, pointed to four signs of gambling addiction.
“People find themselves preoccupied with finding ways to bet or what they’re going to bet on — sort of preoccupation of looking forward to the next bet,” Whelan said.
The second thing he pointed to is being unable to cut back on betting when you want to.
“When people try to cut back, they get distressed about it or they think they’re missing a great opportunity to win money… so they jump back in more quickly than they thought they would,” he said.
Whelan also said that compulsive gamblers may start lying to their family about their habit, fearing others would likely disapprove of how much they’ve gambled.
Lastly, they may resort to desperate acts to get money so they don’t miss bets, Whelan said.
FINDING HELP FOR ADDICTION
One of the longest-running organizations dedicated to helping people with gambling problems is called Gamblers Anonymous (GA).
Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, GA holds meetings across the United States where people struggling with gambling addiction can meet up with others and work through 12 steps that are designed to help someone recover from compulsive gambling.
The steps range from admitting you have become powerless over gambling to making amends to those you’ve hurt as a result of your compulsions to carrying the same message to other compulsive gamblers.
Schneider has been a member of GA for 26 years.
“You don’t have to be there alone. You don’t have to think that you’re the only person in the world that’s betting a thousand dollars a game or more. That’s a lot of other people who do that. Come in, you’ll relate to what you’re hearing in the rooms,” Schneider said.
Additionally, for those who prefer to speak to someone on the phone, GA has a hotline in every state.
Whelan said that research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy — talk therapy conducted alongside a therapist designed to help you work through your mental distortions — has been shown to be most effective to help compulsive gamblers.
But he cautioned that it’s best to find a therapist who has worked with gambling.
“If you go to a therapist who has no idea what a parlay is, they’re not going to understand what you’re doing,” Wheland said.
MINIMIZING HARM WHILE GAMBLING
If you do choose to gamble, Whelan recommends planning ahead.
“The way to avoid…financial harm is to say, I’ve got 100 bucks. If I lose this 100 bucks, it’s okay. I’m going to pay my bills, my life’s not going to be deterred. But you have to do that in a situation where you’re not being emotional,” Whelan said.
He mentioned that he grew up in Philadelphia, so he has an emotional attachment to the Eagles — but that attachment shouldn’t lead you to bet big on a team. He advised setting limits for yourself, both through restrictions the apps allow you to impose and by getting trusted loved ones to help you stay within your means.