Last summer I downloaded a new iPad game for my 7-year-old daughter on holiday. As she seemed to be enjoying it so much, we allowed her to make 'in-game' purchases of fun things like new items of clothing for the characters.
The good feelings turned a bit sour when the iTunes bill for those few days of gaming came in: more than £100 ($155).
Seems our family's experience isn't unique. A rather disturbing new survey from the British arm of Microsoft suggests parents whose youngsters make purchases on iTunes without permission can end up with average monthly bills as high as £34.18 ($53.00). And according to Microsoft, the total monthly cost of unauthorized apps and in-app purchases is more like £30.9 million ($48 million).
What's going on here? Many children's Web or tablet/smartphone app-based games are free or cost as little as £0.69 ($1.07). Most then offer players the opportunity to upgrade their free accounts through paid membership, providing access to parts of the game not available to non-paying players. Other games encourage in-game purchases to speed up gameplay or to access extra features.
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The phenomenon has been gaining more and more attention in the U.K. In one recent high-profile case, a child managed to run up a £980 ($1,521) bill on one such iPad game. The government has since tasked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate whether game developers are breaking any rules by using these purchase practices.
According to Microsoft, 28% -- nearly one in three -- of 2,000 Brit parents surveyed reported that their kids had made app and in-app purchases without their permission. Of that 28%, a full 83% said they'd suffered from "bill shock" as a result, noticing a big increase in their monthly payments due to their children's gaming behavior.
Clearly kids find these online transactions all too easy. In fact, 17% of respondents admitted they share their smartphone and tablet passwords with their children, and 23.5% don't use passwords at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, 77% think families need more help from technology companies to manage their children's activities with apps.
"It's important parents can trust in the technology they use and feel as safe as possible when handing over their smartphone and tablet devices to their children," said Brett Siddons, Microsoft head of consumer marketing for Windows Phone UK.
As for me, I changed my password. I still let my daughter make in-game purchases -- but only with permission, and certainly not every time she plays. Will it take a change in the law to address the problem on a national scale?
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