With little else to do but stay at home in front of our screens, online betting companies have effectively had a captive audience over the last year. As gambling venues closed and many found themselves feeling vulnerable, lonely and in financial stress, it wasn’t surprising that searches for online casinos hit an all-time high in the UK last year.
Spending on online slots, poker, casino gaming and virtual sports increased, and online gambling ads were everywhere, making life difficult for people already living with a gambling addiction, those in recovery and anyone susceptible to developing one. The gambling industry pledged to halt radio and TV advertising during the first lockdown but critics pointed out that spending on online gambling marketing is five times greater than spending on television marketing.
Gambling addiction charity Gordon Moody said it saw a surge in the number of women seeking support after becoming addicted to online casino games. "They're very easy to access – but they're also highly addictive," warned the charity’s chief executive.
Against this backdrop, 28-year-old Stacey Goodwin from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, decided to share her eight-year history of gambling addiction and help other women on TikTok via her account @thegirlgambler. "I was hugely scared but the pandemic pushed me. Seeing all the gambling adverts, I thought it must be so hard. People are so trapped," she tells Refinery29.
Stacey was introduced to the world of gambling at the age of 18 while working part-time in a betting shop to earn money for nights out. Despite seeing people losing every day, one day she decided to put a pound in a machine and "unfortunately" won £36. "It wasn’t a lot but it gave me a high and then it played on my mind more and more. That's when it started."
Slots were her game of choice and, soon enough, she was putting notes into the machines, despite vowing she never would. "In order to get the same kind of high, you need to increase your stakes." At her worst point, she was doing £20 a spin. "That’s the only thing I could do to get the high my brain needed."
There were days when Stacey wouldn't have time to go to a betting shop but still wanted to gamble. "Soon enough, 99% of my gambling was online. I don't think my wage ever lasted longer than 40 minutes in my account because I would go online in the middle of the night and lose it all."
Online gambling took her addiction to the next level. "Previously I’d try to hide I was gambling so much by going from shop to shop, whereas online, people don't know who you are." There were very few limits to how much she could gamble so she felt anonymous and free of judgement – unlike in the betting shops, where she was a rarity as a young woman.
"There’s nobody to watch you, nobody to see how upset, distressed or angry you are because you're hidden behind a screen," she says. "If I was in a shop and I was getting upset, maybe somebody would have walked over and said 'That’s enough for today' and helped me step out, but online, there's none of that."
Some websites do affordability checks, which require users to share income information, but if you're that far into an addiction you'll just lie, Stacey says. There’s also the option of asking to be 'self-excluded' from gambling premises or websites but it’s often possible to break your self-exclusion agreement and gamble online without being identified.
Stacey can’t be sure how much money she lost in total but after eight years of "burning through thousands of pounds a month", combined with taking out loans to fund her habit, she believes it’s close to a million. "Money was just gambling tokens" to her at that time. "It's strange, because I’d never spend hundreds on clothes or makeup or anything like that, but I wouldn't even bother gambling unless I had £200 to do it with."
In hindsight, Stacey recognises the impact of her addiction on her mental health and quality of life. "I can't remember a time when I felt happy in that eight-year period," she admits. "It was like every part of my brain other than the addiction was unplugged. I walked about in unwashed clothes, I didn't look after myself, I couldn't think about anything other than gambling and money. I was sad all the time because nothing in my life mattered other than gambling. I hated myself – I was so ashamed, so guilty. The depression and anxiety were horrific."
It's strange, because I'd never spend hundreds on clothes or makeup or anything like that, but I wouldn't even bother gambling unless I had £200 to do it with.
It was losing £50k in six days – an experience that haunts her still – and an attempt to take her own life that made Stacey realise she needed professional help. "I thought, This is so much bigger than money and I need to get help because it's either my addiction or me, one of us needs to give."
Stacey found Gordon Moody and, after spending four days on a retreat for female gambling addicts arranged by the charity, managed to turn her life around. "There were other women who’d been through the same, which was massive because I thought I was the only woman in the world who’d fallen into this trap." She learned about why gambling addiction happens and the tools available, like Gamstop and Gamban, which let you put controls on your online gambling.
On the whole, though, Stacey says that the help available for female gambling addicts is poor, partly because of the stigma and a lack of awareness that women are suffering at all. "Gamblers Anonymous were brilliant but I was 22 when I went to a group and I was sat in a room full of older men. I was scared to death so I never went back," she admits. "There needs to be more of a gender split [in the help on offer] because being with those other women changed it for me completely."
GambleAware recently commissioned research by YouGov to better understand the experiences of women and gambling, and found that gambling harm can indeed be experienced differently in men and women. Women are more likely than men to have negative experiences with scratch cards and bingo, for instance, and to cite stigma as a reason for not seeking treatment for gambling disorder.
Stacey now gives advice to other women via TikTok and Facebook, and has written a book about her experience, The Girl Gambler. "I give them tips, point them to services in their area or services that I've used. There’s been such a huge response, I'm messaging people all the time." She is also campaigning for "triggering" scratch cards to be removed from the front counters of shops.
Stacey believes her role in creating awareness and helping women with gambling addiction is particularly crucial right now. With daytime TV full of gambling adverts, she says, "there's a lot of women working from home and looking after children who are more likely to see them."
People should be wary of the pink branding and references to the "community" aspect of these websites, she says. "Some companies take advantage of people feeling low, lonely or depressed and say things like, 'There's great community on here'." Escapism also plays a role in these adverts’ appeal. "It’s advertised so much as a fun, harmless thing that people think it’s okay to do it more and more, because that's how it's portrayed."
Jane Rigbye, director of education at GambleAware, told Refinery29 that it’s vital women aren’t overlooked or underrepresented when it comes to support and treatment. "For this reason we run a campaign that is targeted specifically at women to raise awareness of the National Gambling Treatment service, to signpost women experiencing gambling harms to the help that is available."
To women who may be suffering in silence, Stacey says: "You are not alone. There’s a huge number of women out there who find the escapism they're looking for in gambling, and it quickly becomes a problem. We might not speak about it enough but so many women are going through this, and there are tools out there to help."
If you are concerned about your gambling, or that of a loved one, the National Gambling Helpline is available for free, 24/7, on 0808 8020 133. GambleAware also offers free, confidential advice and support.