27/06/2013 12:09 BST | Updated 27/08/2013 06:12 BST

App Store Bill Shock, How You Can Protect Your Kids


Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this month gave us a brand new version of iOS. It looks wildly different, but there was one key improvement that most people missed. A Kids Area has been added to the App Store. Apple has come under fire from parents whose children have accidentally run up large bills without their knowledge. Apple's move is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but does it address any of the underlying problems?

Bill shock stories originated with mobile networks. Families travel abroad, use their phones, and wind up with large bills for calls and data. Last week, the European Commission was forced to commit to abolishing roaming charges in 2014. This is welcome news for consumers, but it suggests an industry that can't control itself.

What's worrying is that apps are now following the same path. Freemium apps have been catching children off guard, and parents have to foot the bill. Research shows the average UK parents will endure an extra £34 of app purchases by their offspring each month. The OFT is investigating already and the app industry needs to be careful not to betray consumers and become as strictly regulated as the networks.

The in-app purchases business model came from China, where there are huge problems with piracy. By making apps free, there's nothing to pirate and developers can create a viable business from the extras in their apps. Freemium games can be played completely for free if the player wishes, but they can speed along their progress by buying extra coins, bonuses, or whatever that game requires. What worries the OFT is that developers aren't making extra purchases clear to children and they just think they're part of the game, particularly when they're made to look like cartoon monies.

Danny Kitchen, a 5 year-old from Bristol, racked up a bill of £1700 in less than 10 minutes. He'd been buying bombs in the 'free' app Zombies vs. Ninja at £69.99 per pack. He bought 19, as well as various other bonuses. When asked what happened Danny said, "I'm not sure how I did it, I thought it was free."

Danny's situation says a lot about how app designers make their apps, but parents need to be more aware, too. There's lots they can do to prevent these problems like activating the parental settings on their device. This is easy enough to do through your phones settings yet so many people never get around to it. It seems like a great opportunity to rethink pocket money for a new digital age.

If children are given some responsibility by being given a limited amount of funds and the chance to learn to manage their own resources, they'll learn there are consequences to spending sprees. It's exactly the same principle as having a few coins to spend on sweets.

The best way to go about this is to avoid real money at all costs. Apple's App Store lets you create an account using just a gift card and an email address, rather than a credit card. It's exactly the same with Google Play. It's nice to be able to give your child a card at the start of the month as though it's real money. Once they've used that month's card that's it.

These systems that use a virtual currency mean that you're never risking any real money. WildTangent was built with this in mind from the start with our currency, WildCoins. The occasions where children have overspent are made worse because there's a high limit on the credit card linked to the account. By taking that out of the equation life becomes a lot less risky.

Some people feel that it's easier for a child to learn the value of money when it is a physical thing, coins and notes, etc. But we're moving towards an all-digital economy. Can teaching the kids earlier be a bad thing?

Steps like Apple's are a great starting point, and developers themselves need to act responsibly to make it clear whether their customers are spending real money or not. Ultimately though there are plenty of ways parents can protect themselves. Being aware of the issue is the first step, but buying a common sense power-up and not giving direct access to a credit or debit card is the only way to remove the risk altogether. Otherwise it could be game over and children are likely to meet a far more real final level boss.