Steven has lost more bitcoins than most people will ever own.
Raised in the remote archipelago of Shetland, he left school at 13 to become a trawler before going into construction, eventually earning £85,000 a year digging tunnels for Crossrail.
Despite his self-made success, compulsive cryptocurrency trading, alcohol and drug use took over his life.
In the haze of multiple addictions, he lost the “addresses” of five to 10 bitcoins, rendering his buried digital treasure – worth £300,000 today – impossible to recover.
Steven spotted the potential of bitcoin early on and had a knack for trading. But even if he had that money now, his addiction means it would soon be wasted.
“Trading is a game, there’s no doubt about it,” he says.
“I studied and studied. I taught myself how to be a good trader and really tried to manage my accounts and stick to a set of rules.
“But my mind was twisting and I was going all in, like a poker player who thought he had the perfect hand. I was convinced that I was going to become a bitcoin millionaire.
Now recovering at the residential treatment clinic at Castle Craig in Scotland, Steven fears that legions of young people are being lured into the high-risk and potentially addictive business, based on the same misguided quest for untold riches.
“A whole generation thinks that with a small cell phone they can win, that they can…beat the market,” he says.
“That scares me.”
Steven’s fears are based in part on the rapid emergence of crypto into the mainstream.
When he started investing in 2015, digital currencies meant nothing to most people.
Today they are presented as a more democratic alternative to a monopolistic and exploitative global financial system.
As the Guardian revealed on Friday today, crypto firms launched a record-breaking promotional campaign in London last year, targeting millions of commuters with 40,000 adverts on billboards, in Tube stations , in cars and on the side of double-decker buses.
Advertisers have included relatively obscure names such as Hex, Kraken, and Puglife that consumers know little or nothing about.
Meanwhile, football clubs and players, not to mention globally recognized celebrities, are touting crypto investments daily via social media.
This week, reality TV star Kim Kardashian West and boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr were named in a lawsuit alleging they helped promote crypto firm EthereumMax because it made “false and misleading” statements that let investors suffer heavy losses.
An Instagram post on EthereumMax, to Kardashian’s 250 million followers, may have been the most viewed financial promotion of all time, according to the head of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
Yet despite their ascendancy – and warnings that governments could suffer “unlimited” losses – crypto-assets remain unregulated in the UK, pending a Treasury review.
This means that the FCA, the UK’s financial regulator, is virtually powerless to influence the behavior of the industry.
While some trading platforms that offer digital assets are regulated – as they also offer more traditional financial instruments – cryptocurrencies and tokens are not.
Crypto-asset managers don’t have to prove they are fit and proper people to take people’s money. The companies they run are not required to hold enough cash to repay investors in the event of bankruptcy. Nor should they worry about the FCA’s stipulation that financial promotions, such as those shown on public transport in London, are fair, clear and not misleading.
Amid the marketing blitz, the Advertising Standards Authority is the only watchdog that has shown its teeth. He investigates an advertisement for the Floki Inu cryptocurrency and has already banned one for Luno Money.
“If you see bitcoin on a bus, it’s time to buy,” the Luno ad insisted, contrary to mainstream investment wisdom.
Luno Money told the Guardian he would welcome an “effective regulatory framework”.
But in the current surveillance vacuum, experts worry that cautionary tales about addiction, like the one told by Steven, will be drowned out by powerful and overwhelmingly positive messages.
To monitor the type of messages sent by marketing teams, the Guardian created an experimental cryptocurrency wallet – containing a mix of bitcoin, ether and Shiba Inu.
As bitcoin tumbled towards the end of 2021 and into 2022, after hitting all-time highs a few weeks earlier, smartphone trading app eToro’s Twitter account remained stubbornly bullish.
“Is bitcoin on its way to a new high?” he asked at the start of the slide. “We have already seen the bitcoin rally. But could he be the one to take her to the MOON?
The answer, for now at least, was “No”. But crypto wallet holders were encouraged to stay positive.
“Your account gained 1.87% yesterday,” read an app notification, as the slump subsides. “You had a great day. Share the news with everyone.
No such invitation appeared on the much more frequent days when the value of the Guardian’s portfolio fell.
“It’s a very strategic marketing ploy,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, one of the world’s leading addiction experts, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of the book Dopamine Nation.
“They encourage you to magnify gains and ignore losses, creating a false impression that there are more gains.”
Asked about it, eToro says it is “committed to helping retail investors engage with each other and fostering an environment of learning and collaboration”, adding that its platform is not “gamified “.
According to the managing director of eToro in the UK, Dan Moczulski, some users make their account public so that “all investments are visible to others, whether they are profitable or not”.
The company said it also provides educational tools, performs know-your-customer checks, and encourages diversified long-term investments.
But Dr. Lembke is concerned about the potential for the element of social media to fuel compulsive behavior in crypto trading, an activity which she says bears the hallmarks of addictive gambling products but without the recognized risk.
“When you mix social media with financial platforms, you create an even more powerful new medicine,” she says.
Social media posts pushing crypto frequently reference Fomo — the fear of missing out — fueling an urge to participate.
“You get this herd mentality where people talk to each other about what the market is doing, they have gains together, losses together, … intense shared emotional experience.”
“We get a little dopamine spike, followed by a little deficit that pushes us to recreate that state.”
This, she says, echoes the characteristics of the game, but with one crucial difference.
“It’s less stigmatized,” she says. “He has this socially sanctioned status like something smart mavericks do.”
The parallels with the game are increasingly difficult to ignore.
GamCare, which runs the National Gambling Helpline, said it answers about 20 crypto-related calls per week. The callers said they traded for 16 hours a day, making huge losses and struggling to cope with guilt.
As with gambling, where each addict is estimated to harm seven other people, many suffered from someone else’s habit.
One shared how her partner’s business obsession led them to spend time away from family. Another said their partner took up trading while recovering from alcoholism, spending every waking hour trading.
GamCare has even dealt with young patients who have purchased digital coins in a desperate attempt to earn enough money to move up the property ladder, only to lose life-changing sums.
At Castle Craig, where Steven is being treated, the first crypto addict arrived at the clinic in 2016, followed by more than 100 since.
“More and more people are isolated and doing this [trading], especially since Covid,” says Tony Marini, the clinic’s senior specialist therapist and himself recovering gambling addict.
“It’s already increased tenfold since 2016, so what will it look like in the next five years?”