A recent survey found that about one-third of experienced Internet users regularly visit one or more online gambling sites. One projection is that by 2002 Internet gambling revenues worldwide will reach $3 billion, almost $2 billion more than the estimated total in 1999. An increase in online gambling generates some concern.
A quick search of the Internet shows that there are well over a thousand sites where computer users can enter virtual casinos and gamble, either just for fun, or with the chance to win, or lose, very real money.
"A person logs onto a site and is usually given the opportunity to experiment with the various games," said Gail Janensch, an official with Greenfield Online, a research organization that has conducted a number of studies of online gambling. "We're all familiar with what casino games are like. We would have blackjack, poker, slot machines, roulette, would be the type of games. They are given the option to try the games for free. Some of the sites require you to download the software which adds an inhibiting factor," he said.
Gail Janensch of Greenfield Online, says that studies show that despite the popularity of online gambling, many visitors to the Internet sites are careful about how much they wager. "Part of the reason our research shows why they are being such penny ante gamblers is because they don't trust that they will get any winnings because they don't know who is behind these sites," he said. "They know these sites are being operated on various islands and overseas countries, but they are not exactly sure who is behind them and they are reluctant to wager $100 or so."
One issue facing the online gambling industry is the problem of addiction. Some argue that using a home-based personal computer as a gambling machine has the potential to be more addictive for certain people than casino-based gambling. This question was even raised recently by members of the United States Congress.
"We've asked that question and this most recent survey of a thousand people found only 15 percent agreed that online gambling was more addictive than offline gambling, said Ms. Janensch. "The jury isn't in yet on whether this activity would be more addictive. There's a lot of discussion in the U.S. Congress about whether online gambling should be definitely outlawed in the United States. There are Congress people who are calling it super addictive and dangerous to children and many other fear-type things. I can actually not point, in the three studies that we've done, to any huge number of people agreeing that it is actually more addictive than going to a casino itself."
Storm King, a researcher and a founding member of the International Society for Mental Health Online said, "The rate of pathological gambling always goes up whenever there is an increase in access to betting opportunities." "This increase that is represented by what is happening on the Internet is incredible," he said. "It is far different from the spread of lottery tickets, or something like that. The type of access makes a difference too. It's like if I'm sitting here writing a letter to you on my word processor. In literally five seconds I can click, click, click and be gambling for real money at a realistic site at some game I like to play. We don't know what's going to happen because it's brand new. It's kind of scary."
What makes online gambling even more scary, says Mr. King, is the anarchy of the Internet. "The word anarchy means beyond political control. That's one of the definitions of the word. Because it is beyond any one nation's power to dictate the content of what's online, the whole sociological revolution of the Internet is causing a dramatic increase in people's need to have a higher level of individual responsibility as consumers. The other side of this revolution is that organizations like online gambling sites, if they want any kind of reputability with consumers, they have to self-regulate. They have to form voluntary, self-regulatory bodies and give themselves the authority to monitor and correct their own businesses."
Apparently no one wants to bet on how successful a self-regulating online gambling industry will be. But, where gambling is concerned there are always losers.