While online casinos are legally restricted to those over 18, thousands of Georgian teenagers are gambling online nevertheless. Activists warn of an addiction epidemic, pointing the finger at loopholes in the verification process and pervasive advertising.
Luka (not his real name), a 23-year-old from Tbilisi, started gambling online when he was 17 years old. His life has changed dramatically due to online gambling.
‘After the first win, I lost control of myself. Now, when I think back, I feel terrible about it, but back then I couldn’t let go of my phone and, to be honest, I hardly remember what was happening around me. All my attention was focused on the game’, says Luka.
‘I even remember the feeling when I won for the first time, I think it was ₾10 or ₾15 ($3–$4). I thought I was invincible’.
Luka says that he had no problems registering for the sites, as he did so in his cousin’s name, who was already an adult.
Veriko Gojiashvili, a psychotherapist who has treated people with gambling addictions, says that gambling often leads to antisocial behaviour, with addicts often having just one goal in life — to find the money for the next bet.
Luka says he lost both his girlfriend and many friends due to his gambling addiction. His parents tried to help, but he refused to admit he had a problem.
‘I thought it was my business and that no one had the right to tell me how to live. Back then I couldn’t understand that I was an addict’.
After he started having problems at school, his father deprived him of his pocket money.
‘Then I started to go crazy,’ Luka says. ‘Immediately, the first debts appeared, but it was no longer possible to win’.
‘For almost two years I played the part, convincing everyone that I had stopped, but a couple of years ago, a friend of mine who also played lost a huge two-story house outside the city due to the same addiction’.
‘That's when I realised that this doesn’t only happen in scary stories and that you can really destroy yourself and your loved ones. Then I really began to try to play less’, Luka recalls.
About a third of the country's residents play online
Georgian legislation prohibits those under the age of 21 from entering physical casinos, and those under 18 are prohibited from entering slot machine halls or gambling online. However, according to the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), over a third of Georgian children under the age of 15 have gambled online at least once, with 27% having dones so within the last year.
According to Guga Beselia, the head of the Gambling Research and Ludomania Prevention Centre (GRAPC), it is the online casinos that pose a real danger to Georgians, since almost 80% of visitors to physical casinos are foreign tourists.
‘In Georgia, over 1 million residents use online slot clubs, many of them are minors. Considering that the gambling industry is not controlling the age of online casino users, the country has big problems’, Beselia tells OC Media.
In 2019, following public pressure and a campaign by political activist Ana Dolidze, the Ministry of Finance toughened the regulations for online casinos to register new customers. In order to register for any online gambling site, it is now mandatory to submit a personal ID number and mobile phone number.
[Read more on OC Media: Georgian anti-gambling campaign kicks off with protest in Tbilisi]
However, according to Beselia, anyone can still create an account in the name of an adult friend or family member and start playing.
Dolidze, who now leads the non-parliamentary opposition People’s Party, also campaigned for online advertisements for casinos to be banned.
Since then, the code on the rights of the child was also amended banning gambling advertisements targeting children on social media.
Dolidze dismisses such changes as insufficient. ‘They made minor changes to the law that could not fix the problem. Anyone can enter other data and use online casinos anyway, as well as see ads’, Dolidze tells OC Media.
The Association of Gambling Businesses, which represents many of the biggest casinos in Georgia including CrystalBet, AdjaraBet, EuropeBet and more, told OC Media that they do not allow those under the age of 18 to play online.
‘The majority [of minors gambling online] are registered on a foreign unlicensed platform or with the support of an adult who gives their data [to that minor]’, a spokesperson for the association insists. ‘Otherwise, a person under 18 years old will not be able to register on Georgian platforms.’
‘According to the Ministry of Finance’s Revenue Service, to date, no incidents of minors participating in gambling have been discovered’, they said.
The spokesperson added that a bill was currently being prepared that would toughen the registration process, making it necessary for a user to submit a photo of themselves next to their ID card in order to register.
But Guga Beselia of the Gambling Research and Ludomania Prevention Centre remains sceptical of the bill, pointing out that it is being worked on behind closed doors and without the involvement of civil society.
He says that photo identification does not go far enough. ‘When registering, video verification is needed, which will make it possible to identify the appearance and passport data of a new user.’
According to Beselia, of equal importance is raising the awareness of adults of the dangers of giving over their personal data to those under 18.
‘It’s no different if a person gives a child access to an online casino or to drugs’, he says.
Most of all, campaigners do not know if the new bill will put new limits on advertising, a common sticking point. According to Ana Dolidze, online casinos remain the largest online advertisers in Georgia.
Beselia suggests that a complete ban on online casino advertising in any space is necessary, given the severity of the problem.
‘Lockdown seemed to make fun of me’
During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the public were advised not to leave their homes, so many switched to distance learning and work. The new ‘home’ way of life for people became a test for many, and gambling addicts were no exception.
Tamar Japaridze, the founder of Mothers Against Gambling, tells OC Media that isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the problem of gambling among teenagers.
‘They don't study, they play online games’, she says.
Japaridze also said that the number of gambling addicts to commit suicide in Georgia is ‘growing at a rapid pace’. There are no official statistics on such cases.
For Luka, a recovering addict, the pandemic has been especially difficult. ‘It was like the lockdown was making fun of me’, he says.
‘I lost control a couple of times and I really feel ashamed of it — imagine, you hold on for so long, but then, because you sit at home for several months, you break down again’.