Can Sweepstakes Lead to a Gambling Addiction?

Sweepstakes Enthusiast or Gambling Addict: How to Tell the Difference

Gambling Addict on Cell Phone
Sweepstakes Enthusiast or Gambling Addict? Here's How to Tell. Image (c) Adam Hester / Blend Images / Getty Images

While entering online sweepstakes is a fun and profitable hobby, people can and do take it too far. If you are concerned that sweepstakes are starting to take over your life, or that a loved one is suffering from an addiction, find out what a gambling addiction looks like and how to get help when needed.

What Is Gambling Addiction?

Gambling addiction, also known as compulsive gambling or "ludomania," is defined as a strong urge to gamble despite harmful consequences or wanting to stop.

Since the release of the DSM-5 in 2013, it has been officially classified as an addiction disorder (previously, it was classified as a compulsive disorder).

Not much is known about what causes some people to fall prey to gambling addiction, while others have no problems at all. We do know that the thrill of winning can affect the chemical structure of your brain. When something unexpectedly pleasurable occurs, such as a surprise win, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine that gives you a feeling of satisfaction and happiness. 

Dopamine is a signal that you have experienced something good, something worth repeating. In nature, this might mean that you have discovered a delicious, nutritious source of food and that you should eat more of it. But in modern society, this desire to repeat a positive experience can get out of hand. 

For some people, winning can produce a high in the same way that using drugs does, and as with drugs, chasing that high can become irresistible.

As your brain becomes used to winning, it produces less of a dopamine response each time, and you miss that feeling of satisfaction. You want to win more often to repeat your original thrill.

Eventually, the dopamine-driven urge to repeat the thrill of winning can lead to destructive behavior. It can drive you to want to drink more alcohol than is good for you or to gamble money that you can't afford in an attempt to come out ahead.

If you'd like more information about how gambling addiction works, see Scientific American's article, How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling.

Sweepstakes Aren't Gambling, So How Can They Lead to a Gambling Addiction?

There's a large and important difference between entering sweepstakes and gambling: you never spend money to enter legitimate sweepstakes or to claim prizes. So it might seem like sweepstakes are harmless, and generally, they are.

However, winning sweepstakes can trigger a dopamine-driven "high," just like winning at the poker table does. And even though you might not be spending your last dime buying lottery tickets, sweepstakes addiction can have its own dangers.

What Are the Warning Signs of Sweepstakes Addiction?

Sweepstakes addiction can occur gradually, and you might not even notice it happening to you. Therefore, it's a good idea to know the warning signs that sweepstakes and gambling are starting to take over your life. Some things to watch out for include:

You believe sweepstakes are the answer to your problems. Entering sweepstakes is a hobby, not a job. While it's fun to dream about winning a Publishers Clearing House SuperPrize or an HGTV Dream Home and saying goodbye to your financial worries, this is not something you can pin your hopes on.

When you start entering sweepstakes desperately because you really need the money, it might be time to step back and look for more reliable ways to address your problems.

You neglect your responsibilities. Your desire to enter sweepstakes becomes so overwhelming that you neglect responsibilities. You might call in sick to work, skip school, or cancel appointments to devote more time to trying to win. Or you might stay up far too late entering when you have to get up early in the morning. Prioritizing sweepstakes over your responsibilities is a sign that entering sweepstakes has become more than just a fun pastime.

You don't take enough time for family and friends. When your kids ask you to play, your best friends invite you out for dinner, or your significant other suggests a romantic outing, you turn them down because you haven't made it through your daily sweepstakes list yet.

Or maybe you go out, but you spend your time on your cell phone getting in one more entry rather than enjoying the company of your loved ones. Neglecting the people who mean the most to you in pursuit of a prize is a strong indication of a problem.

Your other hobbies fall by the wayside. If the other things you enjoyed doing before you started trying so hard to win prizes seem to pale in comparison now, and you no longer have time for favorite hobbies, it might be time to step back and take a break from entering sweepstakes.

Entering sweepstakes makes you feel dissatisfied. When your hobby is starting to have a negative impact on your mood, you might have a problem. For example, you might feel stressed, irritable, or restless when you are not entering sweepstakes. Or you might feel intensely frustrated or burned out when you are not on a winning streak. Sweepstakes are supposed to be fun, and if they only make you feel grumpy or dissatisfied, something is off.

You are thinking about sweepstakes all the time. Even when you are not actively entering, you are thinking about sweepstakes. This goes beyond following some sweepstakes pages on Facebook or joining a sweepstakes club or going to the occasional convention. If you're lying in bed thinking about winning when you should be sleeping or fantasizing about winning when you should be enjoying time with friends, it's a red flag.

You can't cut back. Maybe you have noticed that you are spending too much time entering sweepstakes, and tried to cut back, but you're having trouble following through. Or you decide to enter less, but after a few days, you have gone back to your old habits. If you are having trouble slowing down or refocusing your energies, you might have a gambling problem.

You are sneaking in sweepstakes entries. If you feel like you need to hide the time you spend entering sweepstakes from your friends and family members, you need to take a good look at your reasons for not coming clean.

You deny that there is a problem. If your friends or family members are complaining, or this article hits too close to home, but you are confident that you don't have a problem... you might have a problem. Your brain gets sneaky when its dopamine high is threatened, making it difficult to see the issue clearly. If your friends and family express concern, take their opinions seriously.

There are additional red flags of addiction for types of gambling that involve spending money, such as spending money you can't afford on lottery tickets or spending more money in an attempt to recoup your losses. 

The DSM-5 outlines nine criteria for diagnosing problem gambling. Whether a person suffers from mild, moderate, or severe gambling addiction depends on how many of the criteria they meet.

Who Is Most at Risk of Becoming Addicted to Gambling:

The Mayo Clinic lists six factors that increase the risk of developing a gambling addiction: age, sex, the presence of mental health disorders, having family or friends with gambling problems, taking certain prescription medications, and having personality traits like competitiveness and impulsiveness. If you have these traits or fall into these categories, you should take special heed that your sweepstakes hobby doesn't take over your life.

How to Get Help for Gambling Addiction

If you feel that any of these red flags might apply to you, be sure to see a doctor or mental health professional. A professional can (unlike any article on the internet) give you an informed diagnosis and help you get effective treatment. The earlier you seek help, the easier a gambling addiction is to overcome.

In the United States and Canada, the National Council on Problem Gambling has a hotline you can call for immediate assistance: 1-800-522-4700, as well as helpful resources online.

Treatment for gambling addiction often includes cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, and groups like Gamblers Anonymous.

Conclusion

Gambling addiction is, luckily, rare. According to a report on the Prevalence of Problem Gambling prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, only 2.3 percent of the world's population suffers from any kind of gambling addiction. Most people can appreciate sweepstakes for what they are: a fun hobby that lets you meet like-minded people, try new products, and win great prizes.

But remember, if you have a true gambling addiction, willpower alone won't overcome the problem, just as willpower wouldn't be enough to fix a broken leg or lower blood sugar for a diabetic. So don't hesitate to turn to a professional for help.