From pornography to online gambling: Legal addictions in a pandemic

In a year that has radically changed the way we perceive everyday life, the world’s population has paid a huge price, not only from an economic point of view but also from a psychological standpoint. If economics and physical health are at the centre of our political debate, mental health and its long-term effects on life continue to be treated as peripheral issues.

As a starting point, to get a picture of the solutions found to resist anxiety, hunger, boredom and the lack of social life, we can look at the economic trend of addictions, both 'legal' and otherwise. Alcohol, online gambling, food consumption, compulsive shopping, pornography, drug use: a series of products and services that are easy to find and use, that have generated exponential growth in income and whose effects have also been studied by doctors and associations who deal with psychological support.

Across Europe, professionals had to work overtime to respond to both the increase in requests for help and the need to reduce physical meetings as much as possible, transferring most of the support work to groups that can supply online services.

Drinking (and gambling) your troubles away

Alcohol was the cheap consolation that most people turned to, with a widespread increase in sales and consumption. In the United States last April, only a few weeks after lockdown restrictions began to be implemented across the nation, there was a 55% increase in the sale of alcoholic beverages and a meteoric 243% rise in alcohol home delivery.

According to a survey from the European Association of Wine Economists – carried out in a variety of countries, such as France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland – the consumption of wine, at the individual consumer level, has grown significantly. This growth has, predictably, negatively impacted the sales of beer and spirits. The 30-50 age group were found to be the most frequent wine drinkers as a whole, with the elderly consuming the most in Spain, Italy and Portugal. In northern Italy, where lockdown measures were first introduced, the growth of online alcohol purchases was measured at 186%, compared to the previous period.

With betting halls wilting, having been forced to surrender to the pandemic and losing part of their income, online gambling has experienced a new bloom, accelerating a process already underway for some time. In Australia, in the first week of April alone, there was a 67% growth in activity on betting sites. Online poker rooms in the US saw 43% more players than usual and a frightening 255% increase in players playing online for the first time.

In Europe, too, there has been a boom in the sector, linked to the plethora of different laws on the matter across the continent. Italy has seen an increase of 35% in online gambling, thanks to the difficulty of playing offline and temporary work stoppages linked to closures. The Ministry of Health's support centre for gambling addiction also recorded a surge in requests for help, which came mainly in the spring months of 2020.

More skin in the game

Among the consoling 'addictions' stemming, in part at least, from the pandemic, is online pornography. Never one to spurn an opportunity, Pornhub, along with other reference sites, granted users free premium accounts at the beginning of lockdown. The initial growth was about 13%, but with this offer from the famous site, it reached a peak increase of 18% within a few days. The data becomes even more interesting when we see that this rise in online pornography usage runs hand-in-hand with a general drop in libido, linked to the pandemic situation. Again using Italy as an example, 83% of people reported a drop in sexual habits, with stress, anxiety, fear of contagion and forced distance cited as the primary reasons for this drop.

Finally, the many hours spent in front of the stove, deliberating over whether to risk trying an experimental pizza or to revert to another loaf of homemade banana bread, coupled with boredom and the lack of external stimuli, have led to an increase in cases of obesity. The figures relating to children are particularly shocking, with about one in four children between the ages of 3 and 17 having weight problems. In Italy, studies suggest that 44% of the population is overweight.

The next steps

The pandemic does not appear to be easing its grip, and even as vaccines give us hope for a brighter future, this situation will continue for several months. The increase in online gambling has given rise to the need for a common regulation. Collaboration between EU Member States will allow us to face the issue head-on, which is vital given that the legislation surrounding gambling has become fragmented. An awareness campaign on these 'addictions' could be useful, both to make people understand the line between use and abuse, and to promote the centres that assist those who request help.

Things will inevitably change when strict lockdowns end. States will be called upon to take over not only the economic aspect, but also the health, psychological and social issues that the pandemic has left in its wake. Socialising will have to be prioritised, as people have become extremely worn out by the extended periods of isolation. Social events and gatherings must be promoted, organized and financed so that there is less and less need for substitutes to combat anxiety and depression stemming from loneliness.

Although, in the majority of cases, helplines and help-centres have not reached their limits, there are many factors that must be considered as we plot what the new normal may look like. We cannot ignore the drastic increase in psychoactive drug use, food and alcohol consumption and impulsive online gambling and shopping. The fact that support lines have not reached their limits does not represent just how difficult the past year has been for so many of us.

As Angela Merkel once said, “Nobody in Europe will be abandoned. Nobody in Europe will be excluded. Europe only succeeds if we work together”. Wise words, as we’ve come to expect from the soon-to-be ex-chancellor of Germany, and extremely relevant to this issue.

If we do not acknowledge, and carefully plan to remedy, the difficulties that many members of the population have been facing, we run the risk of these people being left behind, spiralling further into their new addictions and finding themselves in an ever-more insurmountable situation.