Gambling Helplines Report Uptick in Calls from Users of Digital Trading Apps


Problem gambling helplines say they are receiving an increasing number of calls from online day traders concerned about addiction.

Gary Gensler, head of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, told Congress that financial regulations may need to be updated to address the gamification of retail trading. (Image: Reuters)

Experts say this may be partly attributable to people having more time on their hands during lockdown, coupled with a lack of sports to gamble on. But they’re also pointing the finger at the rise of brokerage apps that borrow elements from the gambling and social gaming industries.

Felicia Grondin, acting executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, told The Financial Times Wednesday that her organization’s 1-800-Gambler helpline had received a 50 percent increase in calls from day traders since the beginning of the pandemic. She calls it “the Robinhood Effect,” a reference to the popular trading app.

Democratizing Trading

By scrapping commissions, apps like Robinhood have made investing and trading easier and more affordable for anyone who wants to give it a go.

But they have also tried to make it more engaging through so-called “gamification.” This can involve the kind of stimulating graphics and behavioral prompts that gambling products use to create a compulsion loop for the user.

Robinhood has employed tricks straight from the gambling industry’s playbook, such as offering a “scratch off” function that revealed a free share of stock as a sign-up bonus. And just like with a slot machine, users can be rewarded with a shower of confetti when they make a successful trade.

“The user experience is converging and the line between gambling and investing, which was already pretty fluid, has almost been completely erased,” Keith Whyte, executive director of the UK’s National Council on Problem Gambling, told The FT.

SEC Weighs In

In May, the Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation into whether some of the features used by contemporary trading apps helped or hindered traders.

SEC chief Gary Gensler noted in a written testimony to Congress that most regulations related to trading were created before mobile apps rose to dominate the retail investing landscape and that new rules may be needed to tackle gamification.

He said he was particularly concerned that user prompts could cause customers to make bad trading decisions.

“While new technologies can bring us greater access and product choice, they also raise questions as to whether we as investors are appropriately protected when we trade and get financial advice,” Gensler said in an August statement. “In many cases, these features may encourage investors to trade more often, invest in different products, or change their investment strategy.”

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