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Sports Betting: How to Know If You've Crossed the Line

Super Bowl betting predicted to hit all-time high; mobile apps upping the game

minute read

Written by Kristen O'Neill on February 5, 2024

You don’t have to be a passionate sports fan or a fanatic gambler to know that sports betting is booming.

This year’s Super Bowl, second in viewership only to FIFA World Cup soccer, is estimated to generate $1.3 billion in bets in the U.S. alone, breaking its previous record for money wagered on a single live sporting event in the United States. More than 50 million people placed bets on last year’s Super Bowl, another record expected to be shattered by bettors on the Taylor Swift-ified clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.

If you or someone you care about is engaging in problematic gambling, you can get help by calling the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-GAMBLER, or visiting  problemgamblingcoalitioncolorado.org (for resources in Colorado) or gamblersanonymous.org (for support throughout the U.S. and internationally).

The proliferation and popularity of mobile sports betting applications (apps) has fueled a sports-betting surge. Apps have created exponentially greater access to sports wagering for everyone from casual bettors to compulsive gamblers, who can place bets anywhere, anytime, with just a click on their mobile devices.

Upping the ante is the seamless integration of mobile betting with major sports leagues and media coverage, which bombards audiences with updates on ever-shifting odds and encouragement to “get in on the action,” blurring the line between the game and gaming.

Healthy Gambling Guidelines

  • Set limits and stick to them.

  • Never gamble more than you can afford to lose.

  • Don’t chase your losses.

  • Seek help if you need it. 1-800-GAMBLER 

At the same time, mobile sports betting menus – the types of wagers available to bettors – have expanded significantly. Traditional sports bets (placed before the start of a game, and typically tied to the outcome of the event) are served up alongside “live betting” (also known as “in-game” or “in-play” betting), in which odds and wagering options unfold during live-game play, and “microbetting,” a more granular, instant-gratification form of gambling that focuses on specific events or moments in a game, like the outcome of the next play, point or possession. 

This trifecta of increased access, relentless opportunities to chase one’s losses (or winnings) and pervasive marketing have drawn millions of Americans to online sports betting, increasing the odds that more people will develop unhealthy relationships with gambling. 

With so much on the line, we turned to Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who  specializes in treating patients with obsessive-compulsive traits and has a background in treating addictions. In the following Q&A, Hemendinger offers insight into the root causes and signs of problem gambling (also known as compulsive gambling or gambling addiction), and how to help yourself or someone who is struggling with a gambling disorder.

Q&A Header

What happens in the brain when someone gambles and scores a big win?

Gambling can impact the area of our brain that releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is related to pleasure and reward. Research studies have linked gambling disorders to variations in brain regions, specifically the striatum and prefrontal cortex, both of which are involved in reward processing, stress, and social and emotional problems. 

How are problem gambling and gambling disorder similar to other addictions?

Similar to substance-use disorders, gambling disorder involves growing impairment in one’s life, preoccupation with the addictive behavior, increased tolerance, withdrawal and continuing the behavior despite problems that are caused by the continued gambling. Gambling also involves stimulating the brain’s reward system, as does substance use.

Are gambling apps more addictive than traditional forms of gambling?

I can’t say definitively that this is true, however we do know that access to gambling has increased rapidly with many gambling apps and all the marketing being done for sports betting and video game-based betting. We also know that being on our phones and scrolling gives us dopamine surges and can be addictive without gambling. So, add in gambling on the phone, and I could see a potential for increased issues with problem gambling.

Are there ways to “safely” experience the highs of gambling without developing compulsive gambling behavior?

Many people will be able to gamble casually, and this won’t lead to an addiction or problematic behavior. Most casual gamblers will stop when they are losing or set a limit on how much they are willing to lose. However, people who are predisposed to addiction, impulsive behavior, or may have underlying conditions (e.g., trauma, mental illness, substance-use disorder, etc.), may be more vulnerable to developing problematic gambling. 

This is not to say that if you fall into one of those categories, you can’t gamble. However, being more vulnerable to developing problematic gambling might mean that it is worth it to find other alternatives to seeking the highs of gambling. For example, instead of seeking excitement and adrenaline from gambling, engage in a sport or hobby like rock climbing. Instead of using gambling to be more social, volunteer or join a support group to foster connection. To seek relief from unpleasant emotions, loneliness or boredom, seek out counseling or find out what you’re passionate about and do that, or learn something new!

What are the signs of problematic gambling to look for?

  • Preoccupation with gambling (e.g., planning or scheduling your day around when you can gamble; constant planning of gambling activities; constant planning of how to get more money for gambling; etc.);

  • Needing to increase the frequency of gambling and/or needing to increase the amount of money to get the same thrill/high;

  • Trying to decrease or control gambling, without success;

  • Feeling irritable or restless if you try to cut down your gambling;

  • Using gambling as an escape from life and difficult emotions;

  • Gambling more and more to try to get back lost money (“chasing losses”);

  • Losing relationships or having the gambling impact your relationships and/or job in negative ways;

  • Asking others for money or for help bailing you out of financial trouble because of gambling;

  • Lying to loved ones or being secretive about your gambling in order to hide the extent of your gambling;

  • Gambling even when you don’t have the money; and

  • Stealing or selling things for gambling money.

What are helpful next steps if you or someone you care about is struggling with problematic gambling or a gambling disorder?

I recommend seeing a mental health professional and/or joining a peer support group, such as Gamblers Anonymous.

It’s important for people struggling with problematic gambling to address the underlying causes of the behavior. What are the triggers? Are you gambling to numb out or avoid unpleasant feelings? Does it happen when you feel lonely or you’re looking for a way to self-soothe? 

Working with a therapist to address problematic gambling and the function it serves will be a meaningful step toward regaining your life. Skills you might work on in therapy include healing relationships, stress management, putting finances in order, emotional regulation, building distress tolerance and incorporating mindfulness and other relaxation tools into your daily routine. 

Other tools for decreasing problem gambling might involve setting an alarm or timer to remind you of how long you’ve been gambling, or not gambling alone/having someone to hold you accountable.

Ultimately, involve family and friends. You don’t have to go through this alone. Addiction thrives in secrecy, so talking about it and getting support are the biggest steps.

What is the difference between compulsive gambling and a gambling addiction? 

“People often use the terms ‘addiction’ and ‘compulsion’ interchangeably, but they are different,” Hemendinger says.


“Overall, gambling addiction and compulsive gambling, as well as pathological gambling, all fall under the terms problem gambling and gambling disorder. There is some debate in the scientific and psychological fields about which term applies and is most accurate.


“Compulsions are when there is an overwhelming urge to do something, but doing it doesn’t actually create satiation in the brain’s reward circuitry. Engaging in an addictive and impulsive behavior does create a sense of pleasure in the brain and may decrease any discomfort from cravings.


“Typically, addictions are disorders that involve impairment around impulse control. Impulsive actions focus on instant gratification. Impulsive behavior is uncontrolled behavior. Often times when it starts, it is ego-syntonic, or pleasurable and in line with someone’s goals, values, self-concept, etc. Despite being pleasurable, impulsive behavior can be harmful and with time can become ego-dystonic, meaning not pleasurable, not wanted, and not in line with a person’s goals, values, and self-concept.


“Compulsive behavior involves difficult-to-control, repetitive acts that do not ultimately serve a purpose, but may be completed to relieve oneself of distress (unsuccessfully). People struggling with compulsive behavior are driven to do things that serve no logical purpose.


“Over time, like substance use, the lines between impulsive and compulsive behavior in gambling may become blurred.”



Featured Experts
Staff Mention

Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW