It’s fair to say the word ‘gambling’ often evokes an image of high street bookies whose main customers may be betting on horses and football games. However, the reality is that gambling can encompass everything from online apps to lottery tickets. The UK has one of the biggest gambling markets in the world, generating a profit of £14.2 billion in 2020. But with advancements in technology making it easier to place a bet than ever before, it’s no surprise that there has been an increase in online gambling in recent years, particularly on games such as online slots.
The UK's largest provider of gambling support, GamCare, which is dedicated to helping individuals struggling with gambling, reports that three-fifths (60%) of people calling its Helpline for online gambling issues cited online slots as the main activity they struggled with—twice the figure since 2018-19. Online slots are virtual versions of the classic fruit machines synonymous with brick-and-mortar casinos, where players bet on the outcome of a spin.
With the increased focus on online gambling in recent years, the need to hold open and honest discussions around gambling harm is greater than ever. Myles Stephenson, who is a member of the UK pop group Rak-Su—winners of The X Factor in 2017, no less—has partnered with GamCare on a national campaign to spread awareness of the dangers of online slots, opening up about his own experience with gambling from the age of 18 to 21, as well as the path to recovery after he realised what started off as a fun pastime with friends was getting out of hand. We caught up with him to find out more.
“There are more prevalent issues with online gambling—especially slots. I think I would be doing a disservice in not speaking about my experience.”
COMPLEX: When did you start gambling, and before you did, what were your ideas or preconceptions about what ‘an average gambler’ looked like?
Myles Stephenson: I started when I was about 18, going to the local bookies on my lunch break from sixth form. It wasn’t an issue as I was going with my friends as a competitive form of fun; we were playing slots, roulette, and before I knew it, it started becoming a habit. Once a week became every other day, which in turn became every day, which then became on the way to and from sixth form, in addition to my lunch break. It was a communal thing: me and my five friends would jump into somebody’s Clio at lunchtime and compete with each other to see who could leave with the most winnings. My preconception of ‘an average gambler’ was an image of a middle-aged guy down the pub who puts some wagers on the horses and the local football. I didn’t realise that I was becoming a gambler as an 18-year-old who was finishing up sixth form.
At what point did you realise that gambling had become a problem for you and wasn’t fun? Did it affect your personality, life and relationships?
Although I started out gambling with my friends, it got to the point where I would visit the bookies on my own on the way home from sixth form or download the online betting apps to play online slots and roulette at home on my phone. It was a gradual process before I realised I had a problem. A defining moment was when a friend and I—who was also into gambling—went to a Central London casino one night. I blew £800 in about thirty minutes, asked him to lend me another £800 with the belief that I could win the initial amount back, and lost that within another fifteen minutes. The drive home at 2am was silent because I’d lost his money too; I was £1,600 down, which was a lot of money. I then realised I needed to nip it in the bud as it had affected my friends.
Upon reflection, I’m thankful to have sorted my issue with gambling before I had the family and responsibility I have now. The idea of losing that sort of money with the overheads I have now—children, a house, a car—and the impact it could have on them, is scary. In regards to the impact on my friendships, my closest friends were gambling alongside me, but alone—we never spoke about it. I didn’t lose any friends, but I can see how it can cause rifts between friends if I was the only person within my circle that had a gambling issue. I kept the gambling to myself at home with my family; it felt like a secret, going to the bookies by myself before going home. I hid it from them out of fear and embarrassment of the shame that I imagined if I had spent their money.
What was the journey to recovery like for you and your loved ones?
I was lucky enough to put preventative measures in place. I hadn’t thought of my recovery journey until this campaign, but looking back, it wasn’t easy. There came a point where my friends and I realised we had to ‘grow up’ and take responsibility by stopping gambling to be financially secure. My issues around gambling spilled into working life very slightly, but I knew letting it carry on whilst I worked would cause serious issues. I started going into work at 7.30am to make sure to get in before the bookies opened. I would order lunch to the office as I noticed when I went out for lunch, I would take a detour to the bookies. Convincing myself not to go to the bookies during my lunch break was a constant mental battle, so not going out prevented that. On the way home was the most difficult. I would pass by 6 or 7 bookies on the way home! So, I would drive straight home or carpool with somebody I knew wouldn’t stop. I banned myself from all gambling apps permanently and haven’t used them to this day.
Why is it important for you to share your story now?
There are more prevalent issues with online gambling—especially slots. I think I would be doing a disservice in not speaking about my experience. It’s part of my journey and made me the person I am today, and I hope my story will encourage others to speak up and change their future. I’ve learnt that not speaking your truth is more detrimental than opening up—it lifts a weight off your shoulders. This is such a secretive topic; not many want to admit they have a gambling issue, let alone speak about it. It’s a snowball effect, because we all have preconceptions about what a gambler looks like, but that isn’t necessarily true.
“If I had known about GamCare when I was younger, I would have had better mental health due to their helpline and live chat that allows people to seek help from people outside their immediate circle.”
How did online slots isolate you? Gambling itself is more often than not an individual setting, even though you were going to bookies with friends initially.
Gambling, in general, is quite isolating. You’re focused on playing when you’re at the bookies, not socialising. Online gambling is even moreso, because you can do it anywhere and anytime. That’s the point at which it isn’t fun and can develop into an issue, when done so casually as if flicking through emails or a game. Online slots can be played on the toilet, at the bus stop—there’s no need or want to stop.
What is it about the virtual nature of online slots that may become addictive to some people? Is it fair to say it’s because it feels like a video game instead of real money?
100%. You deposit a seemingly small amount, and it triggers all these bright animations, graphics and themes and everything is aesthetically pleasing. Online gambling is meant to look inviting and make you feel good, but before you know it, you’re depositing more and you’re lost in the game.
How do you think people who might have a problem can go about seeking help without feeling stigmatised?
It is so isolating. If I had known about GamCare when I was younger, I would have had better mental health due to their helpline and live chat that allows people to seek help from people outside their immediate circle or personal lives without feeling shame in the same way they might if they were to confess to close friends or family. We’ve got to remove the stigma around gambling—there is no ‘average gambler’. It could be anybody going through it. Seeking help should be perceived as a positive, not a source of shame. Creating an open and honest culture that allows people to feel safe enough to open up is important.
Why are organisations like GamCare important in having these important conversations?
GamCare operating the National Gambling Helpline is so important. Having a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week open line helps people at any point in their addiction, at any time of the day, seek help and open up. We need to destigmatise gambling problems and through GamCare’s work, we can open up and have an honest conversation that encourages a culture of speaking out.
GamCare are the charity who operate the National Gambling Helpline on Freephone 0808 8020 133 or via web chat at www.gamcare.org.uk, providing information, advice and support for anyone affected by gambling harms, funded by GambleAware. Advisers are available 24/7, every day of the year.