It was 7am and Matt Doherty was blinking at his phone. His eyes were red raw, he had not slept and was hundreds of pounds down.

It might sound like an average Saturday morning, but it was not a weekend, and Mr Doherty was not suffering with a hangover but rather the aftermath of an all-night gambling binge on his iPhone.

“At my lowest point I lost somewhere in the region of £3,500 over two weeks,” says the operations manager, now 29, who has since blocked himself from all forms of gambling. “I was living abroad at the time and was in a state of constant anxiety. I would put a bet on, go to sleep and wake up at 3am to check on a sport in a different timezone and wake up later to find I’d lost and want to just go on sleeping forever.

“I just kept trying to win my money back until I’d gambled more than I actually owned and it was incredibly isolating. I lived in fear of people finding out what I’d done.”

Mr Doherty is part of a growing number of young people for whom the combination of online gambling innovation and smartphone usage is proving increasingly toxic. For millennials, betting via their phones has become as easy — and as frequent — as ordering a takeaway, and while many suffer no ill effects from indulging in an occasional flutter, others will find themselves spiralling into debt, addiction and isolation.

Now, as bookmakers gear up to take an estimated £1.2bn in bets on the World Cup, MPs have declared Britain’s gambling rules are “not fit for purpose” for the digital age and say policies must be overhauled to tackle Britain’s “hidden epidemic of gambling addiction”.

Punters drawn online

Millennials aged 25-34 accounted for the biggest increase in online gambling of any age group last year, according to the Gambling Commission. They are now the most likely of any age group to hold more than five online gaming accounts, are more likely to have gambled at least once in the past four weeks (disregarding the National Lottery) and the most likely of any age group to gamble via mobile phone.

It is a trend that has been accelerated by the availability of a host of online and mobile apps, with just a bank card and an email address needed to sign up. Smartphone gambling grew faster than any other form of gambling between 2016 and 2017, according to the regulator. An estimated 9m people in the UK gamble and last year more than half of those did so via mobile or tablet.

For many young people, gambling remains a weekend social activity. But for others, anxiously checking their phones at work and spending nights bathed in the light of a laptop screen, it can quickly escalate.

“First I just started betting on sports I was interested in, but then I started losing and chasing the money, which is when the problem started,” says 38-year-old Gav Hollander. “Sometimes I won it back but sometimes I didn’t, and it was then that I started losing more than I could afford and taking out loans.”

Problem gambling is highest among the millennial age group. “I’m rational in my day-to-day life but not when it comes to gambling,” says Mr Doherty. “I’d lose, then immediately work out what sport was starting next. I just spiralled and even if I won the next bet, there was no happiness in that. I never felt grateful, just empty.”

Gambling has become increasingly normalised for young people, says Marc Etches, chief executive of responsible gambling trust GambleAware. “Partly because gambling has become so associated with professional sport and also because of gambling-like activity found on video games.”

World Cup betting frenzy

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group G - Tunisia vs England - Volgograd Arena, Volgograd, Russia - June 18, 2018 England's Harry Kane in action with Tunisia's Ellyes Skhiri REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Harry Kane heads England's winner against Tunisia in their opening World Cup match © Reuters

An estimated £20m was bet on England’s opening World Cup match against Tunisia. William Hill expects its customers to bet £250m on the tournament, while the industry-wide figure is £1.2bn.

Betting before and during sports matches is now common among younger gamblers for whom a trip to the football without a bet is like a trip to the cinema without popcorn.

“Most of my friends gamble with apps,” says Mark Thompson, 32. “Most guys I socialise with from work, football or back home all have at least one betting app and for most of them it’s just a bit of fun really. I’ve always loved playing football, but never really loved watching it so putting on a few bets just makes it all more interesting.”

There are also far more options to bet on games now than ever before, including in-play bets — when a match has already started — and accumulators, where a punter must get a series of linked bets right in order to win.

Paddy Power Betfair’s online revenue from sports betting now dwarfs that of gaming (including poker or online fruit machines) by almost three times and Bet365 grew its online betting turnover in its most recent set of results. In-play betting is driving much of that growth, accounting for 72 per cent of Bet365’s sporting revenue in 2017.

“When I was younger you just used to go to the betting shop and you really just had the option of betting on a score and a team to win,” says Mr Thompson. “But online, the number of things you can bet on is ridiculous, from the number of red cards and yellow cards, to the number of penalties. It’s crazy.”

Online gambling charts

Setting limits

When gamblers do want to stop, they can lock their accounts or “self-exclude”. On the high street, it takes just one request to the regulator to be blocked from all bookmakers, casinos and arcades at once. Online it is far harder.

The Gambling Commission is working on a system to block gamblers from all sites with one request. But no such offer currently exists and, with new websites launching every day, getting back online is easy.

“I self-banned from about a dozen websites four years ago which means I’m banned for life,” says Mr Doherty. “But when I have relapsed it’s taken no more than 30 seconds to find and sign up for a new account on email.”

“Even when you set a limit on how much you can spend on a site, you can just open an account with another,” says Mr Hollander. “I must have had between 15 and 20 separate accounts. It’s amazingly easy to sign up and even if I forgot the log ins, there were always new sites cropping up.”

Mr Doherty believes he has spent “close to six figures” on his habit before giving up and has suffered net losses amounting to thousands of pounds. Mr Hollander says he was spending “thousands” by the time he quit.

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MPs call for action

A cross-party group of MPs and campaigners is now calling for an overhaul of the gambling rules to bring the less regulated segment of online gambling into line with betting shops and casinos.

Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, told the FT: “Britain is in the throes of a hidden epidemic of gambling addiction, with the rise in online and smartphone gambling a central part of the problem.

“There has been an explosion of new digital products since the last law was passed to regulate gambling. The current laws aren’t fit for the purpose of regulating these new products. If we are to get a grip on the rise of problem gambling we need a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age.”

Last month, the government announced a cut to the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals — known as the “crack cocaine” of gambling, where punters can lose hundreds of pounds in seconds — from £100 to £2. This is not likely to happen until 2020. While Britons spend about £1.8bn a year on the terminals, the Gambling Commission estimates that total revenues from online gaming (less winnings paid out) totalled £4.9bn in 2017 — up from £3.9bn at the end of 2014.

Although fixed-odds terminals face a clampdown, there are no proposed limits for online gaming, which can be funded via credit cards.

Lord Chadlington, a Conservative peer, says: “We are facing a gambling epidemic in this country and not doing anywhere near enough about it. Gambling should be put in the same bracket as tobacco and alcohol from a health perspective, and must be addressed as such.

“Government must address online gambling as a matter of urgency. It is nothing short of pernicious for children as it grooms them to accept gambling as an entirely normal part of life.”

MPs and campaigners say the government should introduce limits to online betting and ban the use of credit cards. Carolyn Harris, deputy leader of Welsh Labour and chair of an all-party group on fixed-odds betting terminals, says: “Online gambling is so much a part of our everyday life and been so normalised that no one is paying attention to the damage it is causing. It is unbelievable that you can pay online by credit card and that there are no limits on spending online.”

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The Gambling Commission has already said it will consider banning credit card payments, which according to UK Finance increased by 20 per cent in the year to October 2017. But change needs to happen sooner, say campaigners.

“The amount of stake on machines in the bookmakers is important, but it is astounding that there are no limits to stakes and prizes online and that you can use a credit card online,” says Mr Etches, “particularly when the government has said that whatever is permissible offline should apply online.”

The gambling industry has hit back at those suggestions, claiming the way to curb problem gambling online is to use data harvested online to identify, for instance, when people are chasing losses. Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, a trade body, says: “The issue of stakes and prizes has only come up because of the review of machines. From an online perspective it’s an antiquated approach.

“We would say there are better ways of dealing with this. We have complete data and know every customer. What we are developing with charities and the gambling commission is a system of analytics to track all players so you don’t have a blunt instrument of setting stakes and prizes.”

Sky Bet says operators are “working hard to reduce gambling related harm” — pointing to the company’s work on the industry’s voluntary exclusion scheme and a “safer gambling” TV ad.

Richard Flint, Sky Bet chief executive, says the company is “calling on online operators to make better use of customer data to identify and intervene with those experiencing harm”.

But he says mobile gaming had also “brought significant consumer benefits including price competition, greater convenience and choice”.

Paddy Power Betfair and William Hill both declined to comment.

Hounded by notifications

The notifications that punters receive after downloading an app are not officially classed as advertising and so fall into a legal grey area that campaigners say needs stronger regulation. Gamblers can be bombarded hourly with marketing prompts urging them to take advantage of “price boosted” odds and alerting them to games that are about to start.

One so-called push notification from Sky Bet, for instance, reads “Harry Kane to win the Golden Boot was 14/1, NOW 20/1!”. Such messages are allowed, even though certain “Bet Now!” adverts have been banned by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) since February.

The regulator says it is “difficult to say” whether push notifications were advertisements or not, adding that notifications would “not, in all circumstances, be likely classed as advertising” though there were “potential scenarios in which [they] might be”.

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It adds: “We would take seriously any concerns about a push notification for a gambling app that was targeted irresponsibly or had inappropriate content, but in the first instance we would need to establish if it was material that fell under our remit.”

The ASA also points out that customers receiving such alerts had automatically expressed an interest in them by downloading the app. But gamblers say the messages are both persuasive and unwanted.

“Every time I checked my phone there would be a new notification,” says Mr Thompson. “I was getting at least one or two an hour and it felt really constant.”

Gamblers can turn off push notifications if they want to. The same cannot be said of conventional advertisements. Betting adverts fill the breaks of every live sports match, and thanks to sponsorship deals are plastered on players’ shirts in live sports matches and are all over stadium and hoardings — something critics say should be stopped.

“Half the Premier League have gambling logos on their shirts and we need to be more careful about where these products are advertised and the audience they’re reaching,” says Mr Etches.

The 2005 Gambling Act, which came into force in 2007, paved the way for TV advertising for sports betting, poker and online casinos. Gambling ads are barred before 9pm under a voluntary industry code. But a loophole means ads are shown in live broadcast sports events.

Another group of politicians — including Tom Watson — has called on culture secretary Matt Hancock to end gambling ads shown in live televised sports and demanded more serious warnings in ads that were shown.

Lord Chadlington told the FT: “We must urgently address gambling advertising both online and offline,” adding that adverts shown during live sports matches were a particular area of concern.

Regulators say action on gambling ads has already resulted in fines to companies such as Sky Bet and William Hill. Following new guidelines issued by the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling, all ads shown throughout the World Cup will contain a responsible gambling message from beginning to end or a reference to begambleaware.org, a source of support for problem gamblers.

This follows tougher rules unveiled by the ASA in February designed to stop “ads that create an inappropriate sense of urgency”, a measure that led to a ban on the disembodied head of actor Ray Winstone telling punters on Bet365 to “bet in play — now!”

The Competition and Markets Authority has also been investigating companies that advertise free bets or bonus offers with strings attached — for instance requiring customers to pay money into the app first, or play multiple times before being able to withdraw their funds. In February, Ladbrokes, William Hill and PT Entertainment agreed to overhaul their bonus offers in response to the CMA investigation.

23m

The number of active online gambling accounts in the UK in March 2017

This week, online gaming firm 32 Red was fined £2m by the gambling regulator for failing to protect a problem gambler. In March, Sky Bet was fined £1m after it continued sending promotional material to 50,000 potentially vulnerable customers who had asked to be barred from the site. And William Hill was this year fined £6.2m after failing to spot obvious signs of problem gambling. The regulator is now seeking greater powers to fine companies that fall foul of the ASA guidelines.

But for those struggling to ignore the siren call of gambling apps via the smartphone in their pocket, the damage may already be done.

“The tipping point was when I found myself in a situation where I needed financial support from my parents,” says Mr Doherty. “By that point I had already ruined a relationship and become quite isolated.

“I’m not the only one of my friends who’s been in this situation of losing vast amounts of money and feeling they couldn’t tell anyone. Someone is always bragging about how much they’ve won, but no one’s ever telling you how much they’ve just lost.”

Additional reporting by Lindsay Cook

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