Problem Gambling Research Can Guide North Carolina Sports Betting Regulators

In the lead up to the launch of online sports betting in North Carolina, the National Council on Problem Gambling has found that male college graduates invested in sports and sports betting are most susceptible to problem gambling habits.

The NCPG’s research in jurisdictions with legal sports betting, casinos and lotteries could prove important for regulators confronting North Carolina responsible gambling.

State and privately-funded research, like the work done by the NCPG, is starting to probe questions such as:

  • Which populations are most susceptible to problem gambling?
  • What are some key characteristics of a problem gambler?
  • How does legal gambling impact the rate of problem gambling?

Those questions and more are still being fleshed out as states legalize sports betting, online casinos, horse racing and other gaming activities. North Carolina’s sports betting launch, which features legal betting on collegiate sports, will provide considerable data surrounding the correlation between well-educated males and problem gambling habits.

Correlation between education and gambling addiction in men

The research indicates these factors are present in individuals most likely to develop problem gambling habits:

  • young males interested in sports and sports betting;
  • educated, college and above, or in college currently;
  • some indication that members or former members of the armed services.

These are traits North Carolina regulators should keep in mind as the state has a robust collegiate sports culture, and the state’s sports betting law makes no restrictions around betting on college sports.

Studies reveal that the more formal education a person has, the more likely they are to develop a problem with gambling. Why that’s the case is unclear, but college graduates are more likely to become problem gamblers, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C.

“The more education you have, the more likely you are to bet sports,” Whyte said in an interview with WFDD Public Radio in Piedmont earlier this month. “To the extent that college graduates bet sports twice as often as people who’ve only graduated high school. … Graduate students seem to bet sports more than just college. This is, again, an association not found in any other type of gambling.”

These findings by the national council correlate with the findings of North Carolina researchers.

Dr. Michelle Malkin, assistant professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, has been researching the gambling habits of college students in North Carolina universities.

Her findings also identify male students as more at risk. What’s more, she’s found that athletes are more susceptible to developing problem gambling habits because “athletes are more risk prone in their nature,” she explained to NCSharp. “All athletes have this potential to become problem gamblers.”

Conflating her findings with the NCPG’s paints a picture of a problem gambler who is educated, male, invested in various aspects of sports, and comfortable with taking risks.

Identifying early signs of problem gambling

Alarmingly, just because sportsbooks have age limits, that doesn’t always keep the underage population from betting on sports.

“We know that the earlier someone starts gambling, the more likely they are to have a problem,” Whyte said. “Evidence shows that there’s a significant number of the 16- and 17-year-olds who are betting sports, whether that is with a legal provider, and they’ve lied about their age, or whether it’s an offshore illegal provider. … There’s [of course] a lot of ways to gamble, and even to bet sports, that may not be legal, but they’re still widely available to kids these days.”

Because of the prevalence of advertising by sports betting operators, parents must be vigilant in safeguarding their underage children from betting illegally. Parents should discuss gambling with their kids, just as they have the responsibility to discuss drinking, sex and other topics that impact coming-of-age young people.

These traits can be present in a person developing problem gambling habits:

  • Preoccupation with sports on their mobile device, computer or TV;
  • Sudden financial losses;
  • Irritability when discussing the topic of gambling;
  • Borrowing or stealing money;
  • Unexplained periods of absence; and
  • Dishonesty and unreliability.

As Whyte explains, the behaviors of a child experiencing gambling issues are similar to “some of the behaviors associated with a child who may be using or abusing substances.”

This is because – as research on problem gambling has found – the brain reacts to gambling addictions very similarly to how it reacts to substance addictions. In a broad sense, gambling addiction is more a neurological condition than a behavioral one.

North Carolina is proactive in spreading the word about problem gambling. The state has approved the Stacked Deck curriculum taught in public schools. The program, ranging from middle through high school, covers the dangers of gambling and how to approach the subject responsibly.

College students, who often live in an environment of peer pressure and exposure to high-profile sporting events, are especially susceptible to gambling advertising, which could trigger problems. But as Malkin stated in an interview with NCSharp, legalized and regulated sports betting is better than the illegal alternative.

Problem gambling resources in North Carolina

North Carolina will see online sports betting in 2024. The launch window opens on Jan. 8 and closes on June 14. However, the state already has legal gambling in the form of its state lottery and three tribe-owned casinos (each of which hosts a retail sportsbook). The state lottery has also recently legalized digital instant games. As such, residents have access to many retail and online gambling options in the absence of online sports betting.

As a result, North Carolina has resources in place to help gamblers:

  • The NC Problem Gambler’s Help Line is 877-718-5543
  • The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services operates the NC Problem Gambling Program, which administers the toll-free hotline but also funds resources for people who may have a friend or relative with a problem. The NCDHHS website has more information. This program is funded by monies from the North Carolina Education Lottery, and it will receive additional problem gambling funding from sports betting revenue.
  • North Carolina Problem Gambling Council gathers data and resources, much of which helped shape this article. You can contact them to request materials about problem gambling and responsible gaming.

Whyte is optimistic that North Carolina has the resources available to combat problem gambling.

“Much like other addictions,” Whyte told WFDD, “[with] gambling addiction, there’s a lot of ways people get into problems, but there’s a lot of ways people get out of problems. In North Carolina, you have access to very good treatment services.”

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes writes about sports betting, sports media, and sports betting legislative matters. He's the author of three books, and previously reported for Major League Baseball, as well as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.