Study Finds TikTok Users at Higher Risk of Problem Gambling Than Heavy Drinkers

It’s possible to find a connection between almost any two addictive habits, but one recent study shows that regular TikTok use correlates more strongly with problem gambling than either of those things do with heavy drinking. Researchers also found that, generally, weekly social media use is associated with higher overall rates of problem gambling and hazardous alcohol use among adults. However, of the three social media platforms it examined, TikTok was the one most strongly connected to gambling habits.

These findings come even as TikTok faces lawsuits from multiple US states. At least one of these expressly draws parallels between its features and the mechanics of gambling.

Social media addiction among young people is a hot-button topic at the moment. However, the study concluded that regular use of TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and online gambling communities can be risky for adults as well as youth. The researchers from Finland’s Tampere University argue that prevention efforts should address those risks.

Per the article published in the  Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism:

There are risks involved in the active use of some social media services among adult users. Prevention work, including digital health interventions, should be targeted according to the appropriate user group.

Social Media Impact on Adults Understudied

As the study points out, the relationships between social media use, alcohol consumption, and gambling harm among youth have been “well-established” through earlier studies. Far fewer have investigated the impact of social media use on adult behaviors.

While social media platforms were initially considered environments primarily intended for younger crowds, today, individuals of all ages frequent various platforms. As a result, the researchers argue that studies should also consider the potential impacts of social media use on adults.

The researchers hoped to address that research gap. They set out to investigate the associations between long-term social media use, “hazardous” alcohol use, and problem gambling among adults.

The research team studied 1530 respondents over three years, with 58.1% of those participants remaining active through to the final survey. The study focused on social media platforms serving “distinct functions” and offering “unique features” catering to “diverse user preferences.”

Online gambling communities were treated collectively as a fourth platform, alongside Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

To assess participants’ behavior, the team used the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT-C) and the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI).

TikTok, Online Communities Share Higher Risks

Iina Savolainen, the study’s corresponding author, told Bonus via email her team chose not to differentiate between the users of each platform in its analyses. As a result, Savolainen said the results may reflect that overlap.

It’s worth noting that TikTok’s diverse gender appeal could explain some of the discrepancies in correlations between TikTok and other social media platforms. Instagram demographics skew heavily female, for instance, and women are less likely to be problem drinkers or gamblers. That said, Facebook also has more women among its users, yet showed the strongest correlation with drinking.

Overall, regular users of TikTok, Facebook, and gambling communities were more likely to engage in excessive drinking than non-active users.

Pivoting to problem gambling, Savolainen said active TikTok users and gambling community participants were “significantly more likely” to experience problem gambling than less active users.

The study includes a table of correlations between each pair of the ten variables it examined. Selected data from that table is available as an interactive chart at the bottom of this article.

A score of would indicate no correlation at all. Conversely, a score of 1.0 would mean two things track each other exactly (or are, in fact, the same thing). Negative numbers indicate an inverse correlation, meaning one thing rises as the other falls.

The table shows that the correlations between hazardous drinking, TikTok use, and problem gambling are as follows:

  • TikTok and problem gambling: 0.21
  • Hazardous drinking and problem gambling: 0.18
  • TikTok and hazardous drinking: 0.12

That’s a remarkable finding, given the amount of attention the risks of drinking and gambling receive.

The results, wrote Savolainen, suggest TikTok and gambling community members are at increased risk for addiction overall.

Altogether, these results confirm previous research that Facebook is related to increased drinking, but, importantly, also indicate that especially TikTok and gambling community users are at a risk for addiction (drinking or gambling or both). The results might reflect comorbidity in drinking and gambling among the platforms’ users, as TikTok and gambling community use was related to both.

Prevention Must Address Digital Reality

As Savolainen and study partner Atte Oksanen identified in their discussion, the correlation between active engagement, hazardous drinking, and gambling issues “underscores the need to further investigate the interconnected nature of these behaviors.”

Further, they concluded the findings suggest habitual use of Facebook, gambling communities, or TikTok is associated with an increased risk of addictive behaviors in adults.

They added that the association emphasizes the importance of considering the risks associated with specific social media platforms among adults and youth.

Prevention and intervention programs aimed at reducing alcohol or gambling-related harms should be tailored to the relevant user groups and utilize the platforms connected to these addictive behaviors.

Savolainen expanded on that thought in her email. She thinks recommendations and interventions need to be tailored to the dynamic digital landscape.

Social media platforms consume a significant amount of people’s time and can influence behavioral choices, potentially encouraging addictive behaviors. It’s crucial for public health interventions to understand how to navigate the digital realm responsibly and effectively. Prevention and intervention efforts should extend beyond traditional informative campaigns to leverage interactive features that foster critical thinking about social media usage, delve into users’ motivations, and guide them towards healthier alternatives.

She added that future research should delve into the content users engage with and consider personal factors and the overlap between different platforms.

TikTok Under Legal, Political Scrutiny

TikTok has faced increased political scrutiny of late. In the US, the controversy culminated in April with the passage of a bill that could see the platform vanish from the United States.

On Tuesday last week, the US Senate pushed through a $95 billion foreign aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and others. It also contained the threat of a TikTok ban if its owner, ByteDance, does not sell the company within a year. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law the following day. The rationale behind trying to force the sale of TikTok is the suspicion of ties between ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party.

Per CBS News, TikTok executive Michael Beckerman called the legislation “unconstitutional” in an internal memo. He has threatened a legal response to the bill.

Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, wrote:

At the stage that the bill is signed, we will move to the courts for a legal challenge. We’ll continue to fight, as this legislation is a clear violation of the First Amendment rights.

Utah Compares TikTok to Casino Slots

The company also faces several legal challenges at the state level. Most of these hinge on allegations that it deceives consumers and allows children to access “inappropriate content.”

So far, Iowa, Arkansas, Indiana, and Utah have launched such lawsuits against TikTok for its deceptive practices. Three suits remain after an Indiana judge dismissed that state’s lawsuit in November.

In Utah’s case, the state has expressly compared TikTok’s design patterns to the addictiveness of slots.

In that case, the lawsuit alleges the app functions virtually the same way.

Like a slot machine, users ‘swipe down’ on the app to load more videos continuously, each new video requiring only a small investment of their time, and the user is excited for each new video by the possibility that it might be incredibly rewarding. This pattern keeps users engaged, constantly anticipating that dopamine rush.

Even with a possible TikTok ban on the horizon, much about the relationships between social media, gambling, and risk remains for us to understand.

Selected Study Data

The study tracked ten variables and provided correlations between each pair. For simplicity, here is a chart showing only the correlations between the four types of social media use and three types of mental health issues. The MHI-5 (Mental Health Inventory, version 5) is a very brief diagnostic tool to measure an individual’s overall mental health.

TiktokFacebookInstagramGambling Forums
Problem Gambling0.
Heavy Drinking0.
MHI-5 (Mental Health)

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil (she/they) is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor, and a lead writer at Bonus. Here she focuses on news relevant to online casinos, while specializing in responsible gambling coverage, legislative developments, gambling regulations, and industry-related legal fights.
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