University of BristolHigh stakes research into online gambling

High stakes research into online gambling

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Protecting children from esports betting platforms is one of the social challenges being tackled by Bristol’s School of Management

If you’ve never heard of skin gambling, loot boxes or matched betting, try asking a teenager. In fact, these are all ways in which children and young people can be lured into online gambling, a habit that seemingly goes hand-in-hand with the rise in popularity of esports.

A form of competitive video gaming, esports predominantly attracts amateur and professional players in their early 20s or younger. Last year, it was a 16-year-old, Kyle Giersdorf, who made headlines when he took the $3 million (£2.4 million) top prize at the Fortnite World Cup.

While there are strict regulations regarding advertising online gambling, these are not always being followed when it comes to social media platforms. New research shows that in the UK, 41,000 followers of gambling-related accounts on Twitter are likely to be under 16, and that children make up 6 per cent of followers of traditional gambling accounts. The figure rises to 17 per cent for accounts focused on esports gambling.

These findings were published in August 2019 in Biddable Youth, a major report by the School of Management at the University of Bristol and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. Citing Twitter data gathered over nine months in 2018, it found that in the UK, 28 per cent of people retweeting or replying to esports betting tweets were likely under the age of 16. The report formed part of a larger project funded by GambleAware, aiming “to assess the extent, nature and impact of gambling advertising on children, young people and vulnerable groups in the UK”. 

The research was headed by Agnes Nairn, a leading international authority in ethical marketing at the School of Management, who has served on government panels related to children, marketing and health and as an expert adviser to the UN on advertising and cultural rights. She says the lack of awareness about this trend is a real problem: “Parents don’t have a clue about esports. And if they do, they don’t know about the gambling that goes alongside it. So they’re not likely to be talking to their kids about it, in the way they might talk about online poker or regular sports gambling.”

As with many technology sectors, esports is developing faster than its regulators can move to control it. There are rules that should prevent esports betting advertisers from targeting children and young people, such as disallowing the use of images of under-25s in gambling adverts. However, Professor Nairn found these were being flouted time and again. “Most of the superstars in esports are under 25. When you show a picture of them in a betting promotion, you are already breaking regulations,” she says.

A further concern was that, of the 888,000 tweets sent by betting-related accounts that were examined using computer-aided analysis, only 7.3 per cent contained any warning about the minimum age for gambling, responsible gambling or terms and conditions in the text. For esports accounts, this number fell to 0.1 per cent, displaying the worst in advertising practices.

The timing of the tweets was also an issue, Professor Nairn explains. “There are huge esports communities in China, South Korea and the US, meaning that although this may not be a strategy, children are seeing esports bookmakers’ tweets posted in the middle of the night in the UK.”

Manual content analysis found that 17 per cent of esports tweets encourage betting late at night or in the small hours. Separate research has shown that late night esports marketing is more likely to affect vulnerable users and make them spend more.

The report contains several recommendations aimed at industry and advertisers, technology companies and regulators. These include: making existing age verification tools available to all advertisers; integrating more explicit references to age restrictions and safe gambling in advertising content; ensuring existing regulations and best practices in regard to licensed betting are followed; and considering the potential value of education initiatives for parents and young people.

Professor Nairn is pleased with the response. “We’ve had really good dialogues with the Advertising Standards Authority,” she says. “One of the things we picked up is that they have a core piece of regulation which says that advertising should not be of particular appeal to children and young people. However, a lot of these tweets…are designed to build brand loyalty [and] contain funny videos and memes. These also appeal to adults, but of course that doesn’t make them automatically unappealing to children.” Consequently, the ASA is now evaluating what “particular appeal” means.

The research findings were presented at a conference organised by GambleAware in 2019, attended by regulators, government officials, gambling operators, academics and young people. According to Professor Nairn, there was general agreement that this was a serious social issue. Without changes, this could get worse, as esports become more mainstream.

Looking at the coming together of new digital technology, the transformation of industry and what it means for society, Biddable Youth is typical of the research done by the School of Management. The school seeks to address global and societal challenges facing different types of organisations in public, private and non-profit sectors. As a pluralistic school, it takes on big management issues associated with the future of work, cybercrime digitalisation, sustainable production and consumption, digital public health and supply chain management.

“For us, management means better organising, and how to coordinate different resources and entities to deal with the specific challenges of the day and the future,” says Professor Nairn. “Management is arguably an applied social science, so we are social scientists first and foremost. We are critically reflective, analytical and evidenced based in our research practice. Furthermore, we believe in the co-production of knowledge and advocate an inclusive approach to investigative inquiry including non-academic stakeholders – practitioners, users and policymakers. 

“There’s been a huge recruitment over the past two years of people who are really concerned about the big social challenges of the era, whether it’s protecting children, protecting workers, digital challenges or looking at the right kind of leadership for tomorrow’s organisations.”  

In addition to Bristol offering advice to UK organisations such as the ASA, international interest in the Biddable Youth report has resulted in talks being considered for European and Asian audiences. “There are very different views about gambling in different countries,” says Professor Nairn. “This makes it a very rich area to consider internationally. There’s a lot of mileage in it yet.”

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