Before the rise of online gambling, if you wanted to place a bet, you’d have to do so within the opening hours of the bookies, roughly 7am  - 10pm. Likewise, if you wanted to play slots in a pub, bar or club, you would be limited by the opening hours of the venue. As a result, when these outlets were closed, you would be in effect forced to pause gambling.

However, over the past two decades, gambling has become available on the device of your choice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This means that for people with a gambling addiction, the opportunity to place a bet, or to spin a wheel is ever-present. If they so wish, a person can now lie in bed, playing slots on their phone all through the night. 

Night gambling presenting new risks

This is a cause for concern. We know that people with online gambling problems are more likely to place bets between the hours of midnight and 4am, and that sleep deprivation makes people pursue bigger risks and give less consideration to negative consequences. This can have a cyclical effect, where people at greatest risk of harm are most likely to stay up late, in turn becoming sleep deprived and therefore likely to gamble even more.

Furthermore, gambling at night also presents increased risk of harm because it is hidden from view.  Because gambling at night is likely to happen behind closed doors, alone in the bedroom, it is much less likely that friends or family will notice excessive device use, and therefore it presents fewer opportunities for interventions.

What options are available?

If we wish to reduce gambling harms and bring online gambling in-line with in-store gambling hours, it makes sense to introduce policies that address this time-specific issue, via a gambling block within certain hours. This could be designed to exactly mirror in-store opening hours, with a shutdown between 10pm and 7am, or alternatively be a shorter ban from midnight-4am, to reflect hours when people with online gambling problems are more likely to place a bet. There is already precedent for such a policy from other domains: the 2005 (Scotland) Alcohol Act introduced a 10pm-10am ban on off-licence alcohol sales, in recognition that greater levels of alcohol harm occur within these hours. 

What mitigating factors would have to be considered?

Any such ban would have to take into consideration the fact that there are certain forms of gambling, such as sports-gambling, where the time-specific nature of these events may occur during these hours (especially for international events where time zone differences may lead to the event occurring in the early hours for the UK).

A blanket restriction on all gambling may therefore limit people’s ability to place bets on these events. We also recognise that there are online gambling products with multiplayer aspects, such as poker, where a timed cut-off for UK-based players may unfairly disadvantage them. Any policy would need to navigate this issue, and in recognition, it could be feasible to design a ban on certain non-time specific products such as online slots while giving exceptions to certain products including sports betting.

Such a policy may bring complex enforcement challenges. A restriction on UK access to gambling sites could be circumvented using a VPN, which would enable individuals to set their location outside of the UK and thereby retain access. It may therefore also be necessary to introduce a requirement for UK banks to not process UK debit card payments for online gambling sites between set hours. We know that banks have the capability to do so, and the Rt Hon Chris Philp MP has made clear that he is interested in harnessing the data held by financial institutions to protect people from harm, so such a measure would fit well within this agenda.

The proposal for such time restrictions can be expected to be met with industry opposition, who may once again claim that people would be driven to gambling on the black market. However, as widely stated elsewhere, this is not a reason to not reduce harm in the regulated gambling market. Other domains, including alcohol and tobacco also have illicit black-market issues, yet are still subject to stringent regulation. We should not be afraid to take new approaches to protect people from harm. 

To determine what effect such restrictions would have on harm reduction, and the specific hours that it should be imposed for, there is a need for more research on hour-by-hour gambling activity levels, as well as further insights from people with lived experience.

If you would like to share your thoughts, please get in touch.