Back to Blog

Understanding In-App Purchases

apps Feb 03, 2018

AUTHOR: Katherine Fitzgerald, Law student, University of Paris 8

Let’s face it apps are everywhere and all invasive it seems. There are apps for dating, banks, bookstores, cinemas, health, music and of course the holy mecca when it comes to children: games.

Whilst our older children still prefer to use their smartphones, a growing phenomenon has develop in the last few years in smaller children. Case in point according to OFCOM tablet computers are growing fast in popularity, becoming a must-have device for children of all ages. The use of tablets has tripled among 5-15s since 2012 (42%, up from 14%), and one quarter (28%) of infants aged 3-4 now use a tablet computer at home. Whilst this figure seems alarming it just seems to reflect a greater use of technology as a form of entertainment at home. I remember my parents being concerned at my love of television as a child. It therefore doesn’t seem so surprising to see that the younger generations are now turning to tablets for fun instead of television programs as they allow for greater interaction.

Before discussing the potential pitfalls of apps, it is important to reassure parents on how our children nowadays use the internet. On the wider internet, schoolwork is the most mentioned internet activity carried out at least weekly by 8-11s (75%), followed by games (54%) and finding information (45%). This is surely a comforting statistic as our children are not only using the internet as a distraction but mostly as an educative tool. So before we berate our children for their over use of the internet, be it on smartphones, tablets or computers they are probably more productive than we can be.

However the focus here is the dangers of the game app phenomenon. Most people have a fair share of “free games” on our smartphones or tablets (Candy Crush comes to mind!). These are addictive and a huge source of procrastination (well most commuters will back me up on this am sure!). But theses “free” games are actually a dangerous past-time for our wallets. A lot of theses apps allow a free download to get you hooked. The first few levels are easy and allow a quick progression through every level, be it for children or adults alike.

Such “free apps” should surely be celebrated. However there comes a point where the levels become more difficult. And this is where the danger of the ‘app trap’ appears. To progress a pop-up often appears asking you whether you wish to ‘purchase’ cheats or advantages in the game. As adults most of us will avoid this temptation. For children, and especially younger children, they will just see the opportunity to keep playing. Let’s not lie, most will click yes.

This form of pay-whilst-you play app is indeed a slippery slope. I myself spent a whooping 40 euros in ‘game of titans’ on a lonely January weekend (think ages of empire on your phone) and was horrified when I received my ITunes invoice. For children (who are unaware of the value of your hard earned money) this presents a very real risk for a virtual game. Indeed in one case a 12 year old boy racked up a bill of 1,700 pounds in under ten minutes through a ‘free app’ and Apple refused to reimburse his parents when they realised his folly.

To avoid such scares when it comes to our children there are nonetheless fail-safes.

Take the example of the Apple account (iPhones and iPads):

  1. The first step is to ensure that your children do not have their own Apple account. Guarantee there is only a home account and that you and your partner are the only ones with the password. Do not share it with your little ones even if they want to add an app and require your Apple password to download it. Type the password for them as they might be very keen to memorise it in your place.
  2. Once that is done you can take further steps. In all tablets and iPhones there is a ‘restriction’ function in the settings section. Ensure you enable the restrictions on all the computers, tablets and smartphones that are in the home or used by your children. You will need to type in a four digit passcode (that again you need to keep out of their reach and knowledge). Once this step is done you slide down to the ‘in-app purchases’ option and disable it. This way not only will your child not be able to buy ANY in app-purchases but they won’t have the means of reversing the setting.

For Android, the same system applies:

  1. Start the Google Play Store app from the homescreen
  2. Tap on the Menu button and pick Settings
  3. Scroll down to the User Controls submenu, and tap on the Set or Change PIN option
  4. Choose a PIN that will be easy for you to remember, but hard for the kids to guess, and re-enter it after pressing OK
  5. Now checkmark the box next to the Use PIN for purchases option, and the phone will ask for the digit code with each in-app purchase try

Don't miss out!

Get all the latest digital parenting news delivered to your inbox. 

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.