In-app purchasing and children close

David Hart
In Codegent News, Musings, Apps
18th April 2013

This week the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) vowed to scrutinize mobile apps to see if games put unfair pressure on children to pay for additional content.

The BBC came to our studio to interview us for BBC News about what we felt the issues were and what could be done about it. Inevitably, they were there for a couple of hours and we were on the news for about 15 seconds. So, we thought we’d expand things here.

The ‘freemium’ model, where a basic app is free to download and use, but in order to unlock its full potential, users need to pay, is one that is used a lot. It is an effective way of allowing users to ‘try before they buy’, especially where they might be buying an app made by someone they’ve never heard of. This in itself leads to higher overall downloads and, for developers, that translates into more sales than they might get if they charged up front. We do it ourselves and we think, when done responsibly, it’s a valid model to use.

The trouble is that when it comes to children, who may be unaware of what they are doing when they are prompted to upgrade or buy extra features, we enter into a whole other question of protection and disingenuous revenue-generation.

All this begs two questions:

  1. Who is responsible for this and what should be done?
  2. What can we do, as parents or relatives of children who use mobile devices, to prevent them from inadvertently paying for content?

I’ll start right off by saying; anyone who deliberately sets out to trick a child into buying something that they were unaware of should be driven out of town. Don’t try and flog stuff directly to kids and absolutely don’t hoodwink them into doing so unintentionally.

Undoubtedly it is the responsibility of the developer to make it clear that some content is free and some isn’t. For the apps we produce for very young children we have a “child-proof” parental control area. In order to access this you have to hold down a button for 3 seconds (we know that children will touch every button on the screen and so we didn’t want them accidentally stumbling upon the control area). Then within this section there is an option to disable purchases. This means that children won’t be able to accidentally upgrade the app if their parents don’t want them to. Mum and Dad can then feel reassured that their child is using the app safely.

And some responsibility must fall on the parents’ shoulders. As parents, we need to be aware of what our children are looking at and playing with. But we accept that parents won’t always have the ability or time to work out what may or may not happen further on in the game.

So, we think the distributors (Apple, Google, Amazon etc.) have a responsibility to explain the risks and the ways of protecting their children using their devices. Why aren’t they doing this already? We suspect it might be partly because they don’t want everyone to default their setting to be “no payment” because apps form a large part of their revenues. And as developers, neither do we. But we do think that there could be more done to reassure and educate parents because none of this is rocket science. And, like the direct marketing industry who felt that people should opt out of receiving direct mail rather than opt in, there is a danger that if you don’t self-regulate responsibly, then regulation will be forced upon you.

So, in the absence of 100% responsible developers and clear guidance from the distributors, what things should we be doing ourselves as consumers?

Well, firstly as already mentioned, be vigilant. Check whether the game your child loves playing has in-app purchasing and whether this is a simple one-payment upgrade (like ours) or whether your child could keep spending forever if they had the chance.

Look for developer controls that allow you to disable in-app purchasing. If they don’t have one and you think they should, tell them. Developers are genuinely anxious to know what their customers think. If a few people start asking for the same thing, the chances are they will include it in a future version.

Apple has a ‘grace’ period on passwords for the app store. It means that if you enter your password, you won’t have to do so again for the next 15 minutes. This is to stop people from having to continuously enter their passwords when they are making multiple-purchases. But you can just change this setting in General/ Restrictions / Enable Restrictions and change Require Password from ‘the default ‘After 15 minutes’ to ‘Immediately’.

You can of course disable in-app purchases altogether in the same Restrictions section as above, and changing the In-App Purchases setting. But this might be annoying if you have to go and undo it each time you want to make a genuine purchase.

If your child has purchased something in error, then ask for your money back. iOS developers aren’t permitted to issue refunds themselves so you need to write to Apple but they are genuinely very good at refunding purchases made in error. Android users can get the developer to refund them, so contact them directly.

In-app purchasing is probably here to stay (unless legislation or patent claims make it unsustainable), so we probably all need to get better at being aware of them and compelling developers to be up-front and honest about them.