This piece originally featured in issue 3 of Digital Parenting magazine.

The Office of Fair Trading is urging developers to take action to ensure kids don’t run up big bills from in-app purchasing. And, it says, parents need to act too.


“You’ve run out of virtual coins. You can buy more now!” This kind of phrase is familiar for anyone who enjoys playing games on their tablet or smartphone. But online gaming apps that encourage users to purchase costly added extras are coming under fire from UK consumer groups, who say this sales tactic leaves users, and kids in particular, vulnerable to unexpected costs.

Racking up bills through in-app purchases (IAPs) is a big win for game developers, who are reacting to our increasing reluctance to pay for apps upfront. But pricey IAPs mean young players can unwittingly rack up huge sums on games where spending is charged against a parent’s bank account. In the current marketplace, for example, more than 50% of the online games sold in the EU are advertised as ‘free’ but carry hidden costs. And some of the most popular free games for children come with the option to buy additional content, such as virtual currency, extra levels and upgraded features.

One potentially expensive example is the My Little Pony app, a game aimed at six-to-nine-year-old girls, which offers users the chance to purchase a virtual ‘mountain of gems’ for a real-life cost of £69.99. Such temptations can prove irresistible to a child caught up in playing to win. In 2015, five-year-old Danny Kitchen from Bristol ran up a bill of £1,700 on his parents’ iPad in just 10 minutes buying costly add-ons from the game Zombies vs Ninja. Similarly, eight-year-old Lily Neale from Somerset unknowingly spent £4,000 playing Campus Life, My Horse, Hay Day and Smurfs’ Village on her dad’s iPad – all games aimed at children under 10. The money was eventually refunded to Lily’s father. But many parents end up taking the hit and paying a significant amount for a few minutes of child’s online play.

Headlines such as the ones above contributed to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) carrying out a five-month investigation looking at 38 web and mobile apps likely to appeal to kids. It found some included “potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices” and children’s “inexperience, vulnerability and credulity” were being exploited by the app creators. The OFT said it was particularly concerned about games which imply the player would somehow be letting down other players or characters if they did not obtain something by making a purchase – and about blurring the distinction between in-game currency and real money. The resulting Children’s Online Games report concludes that the app-based games industry “needs to do more to protect children”.

As a result of the report’s findings, the OFT has ordered gaming app developers to clean up their act, and if they continue to engage in potentially unethical commercial practices, it will take action. However, the OFT also urged parents and carers to protect their children and their bank account. Chief Executive of the OFT, Clive Maxwell, said: “Our advice is that parents check their device settings, play their child’s games themselves and read the descriptions of these games online. Parents are also encouraged to report any concerns to Citizens Advice.”

Many app developers’ welcome discussions on setting commercial standards and the OFT’s recognition that parents, as well as the industry, have a part to play in protecting children from the excesses of IAPs. For many developers, the use of IAPs is essential to help fund research and development of new games to bring to market. “Done responsibly, micro-transaction based business models give choice and value for both players and businesses,” Dr Jo Twist, Chief Executive of the British games industry body Ukie, told the Guardian. “Flexibility for companies to operate different business models is crucial, and it is good to see the OFT recognise this.”


3 ways to avoid bill shock from in-app purchases

Try it yourself…In-app purchases aren’t bad in themselves, as long as they’re used responsibly and under the full control of parents. Whenever you’re downloading a free game for your children, it’s a good idea to play it yourself first, to understand how in-app purchasing is used, and whether you’re comfortable with it.

Set a password… Both iOS and Android devices let you force a password to be entered before purchases can be made on the device. Don’t share this password with your children – a tip that may sound obvious, but which many parents don’t follow. And never check the ‘Remember Me’ button, because it will override the need for a password.

Give your kids digital pocket money… Talk to them about in-app purchases and encourage them to take a responsible attitude towards them. As they grow older, consider giving them ‘digital’ pocket money in the form of an iTunes or Google Play gift card – they can spend within limits, and may learn about budgeting too.



This article was originally written in partnership with Parent Zone