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July 11, 2002

Be it gambling, drinking, shopping: Addiction is a matter of behavior, prof says

With the recent legalization of the national Powerball lottery game in Pennsylvania, those who fantasize about hitting “The Big One” have another option. But for compulsive gamblers, Powerball provides yet another way to feed their addiction.

“When it comes to addictions, whether Internet addiction or alcoholism or unnecessary eBay purchasing or compulsive gambling, it’s all about patterns of behavior,” Kimberly Young says.

“Obviously, not everybody who buys a lottery ticket will become a compulsive gambler,” she says. “But it can become a growing problem when you’re stopping to buy lottery tickets every day as part of your routine, when you vacation only at casinos, or when you spend all your spare time on the Internet gambling — in other words, if a pattern develops where many of your activities include gambling, it can definitely be a big problem.”

Young, who holds an adjunct appointment at Pitt’s Bradford campus, was assistant professor of psychology there from 1995 to 1999.

She is founder and president of the Center for On-Line Addiction ( and a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and government agencies concerning on-line addictive behavior. She also conducts workshops on the treatment of cyber-related disorders.

In Pennsylvania, gambling opportunities abound and are proliferating. There are several lottery games, including Powerball (see story on this page); off-track betting; even the local church bingo game. And that’s not counting illegal ways to gamble, including through bookies and numbers rackets.

Research indicates that 5-10 percent of gamblers are susceptible to an addiction, Young says. “A gambling problem is not clearly defined. It’s really a case-by-case thing. I’ll never say the Internet is bad or alcohol is bad or gambling is bad in and of themselves. But how compulsive is the behavior? Does buying one lottery ticket turn into 20 and 30 bucks a day? Are people spending more money than they can afford? Are they doing it daily, are they lying about it, are they using up their savings?”

Also at risk are individuals living paycheck to paycheck who buy lottery tickets before paying their bills, throwing themselves into debt or credit-card purgatory.

“There are warning signs,” Young says. (See self-test box below.) The original appeal for the gambler, compulsive or not, is the thrill of anticipation, Young says. “There are heightened expectations, which can be enjoyable for all who gamble. But this can lead to a clear-cut progression. You don’t realize it until it’s too late. People don’t look ahead and say, ‘Buying lottery tickets is going to cost me my marriage or my job,’ but that could be the case.”

Particularly worrisome, Young says, is the use of the Internet to spawn or feed a gambling compulsion, a relatively new phenomenon.

Young’s research has focused on the impact of technology on human behavior, which led her to zero in on Internet addiction in its various forms, including compulsive on-line gambling, on-line auction addiction, obsessive on-line trading and cybersexual addiction. She has published numerous articles about e-behavior and authored “Caught in the Net,” a book on Internet addiction recovery, already translated into six languages, and “Tangled in the Web,” which explores cybersex fantasy and its potential for addiction.

Sometimes a person browsing the Internet hits on something out of boredom and gets hooked, Young says. “Today, more people are computer savvy, including very young people who are particularly vulnerable in an on-line environment when there is no cash exchanged,” she says. “It’s easy, it’s anonymous and it’s empowering.

“Our company [the Center for On-Line Addiction] has seen a dramatic rise in these issues over the past year alone due to the popularity of auction houses, virtual casinos and on-line brokerage houses,” she says. “These web sites are very aggressive in their marketing.”

Compulsive gambling officially is a clinical disorder, but now the Internet makes the ability to extend a gambling habit to virtual casinos immediately available. This allows people with gambling problems to explore the Internet as another vehicle to satisfy their addiction, Young says.

She points to the so-called ACE model: accessibility, control and excitement.

* Accessibility: With the Internet, “we now have immediate access to hundreds of virtual gaming sites, to on-line trading sites that provide up-to-the-minute stock reports and to on-line auction houses to find any item imaginable,” Young says. “As the hassles and limitations of real-life are removed, we now live in a culture where we can indulge in these activities to seek out immediate gratification and satisfy our impulsive whims and we can do it 24/7.”

* Control: “Today, the ability to take control over one’s own investing has the potential to fully replace the need for brokers, and such personal control becomes a major obsession,” Young says.

* Excitement: Excitement represents the emotional “rush” or “high” associated with winning, Young says. “In gambling, one sometimes wins the bet, wins some money, and it becomes a great reinforcement to keep playing. The excitement surrounding the activity becomes a powerful hook that continues to reward future behavior.”

To help combat compulsive gambling, society should stress preventive programs, Young maintains.

“I don’t think we’ll get to the point where when you log on to AOL you’ll get a warning that the Internet can be addictive. But we need to expand our educational programs, including in the workplace.

“We need to disseminate more information on the danger signs, and urge people: If you see the signs in yourself, contact Gamblers Anonymous or get some counseling.”

Talking about a gambling problem also is important. “Gamblers often keep their compulsion to themselves or lie about it to friends and loved ones. There is often an element of deceit.”

–Peter Hart

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