Pay to Play – How To Prevent Unwanted In-App Purchases

The Internet is awash with horror stories from parents who have discovered that their child has spent an impressive sum on a game without their consent or knowledge; but, just how much of a problem is this in-app spending issue?

There are two main schools of thought on the Internet regarding the overspending in an app or game by a child. One view is that it’s the fault of parents or guardians, letting their child on the game with unrestricted access to their mobile spending platform. The other view lies the blame at the feet of the developers and those who have created the app or game. Both have their valid points, and there’s no right or wrong, but perhaps the blame lies equally with each.

In-app spending is a modern scourge for parents, guardians and even the children and young people themselves. From the point of view of the parent or guardian, we have a child who enjoys playing a game, regardless of whether it’s a mobile game, console game or triple-A rated PC game and we’re more than happy to allow them to play the game without any restrictions, after all it’s just a game, right? However, when those parents then receive the bill from their credit card company, or a call from the bank, that their account is now several hundred or even thousands of pounds lighter, that game has suddenly become the bane of their existence.

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From the point of view of the child, they have an incredible and addictive game in front of them. They’ve put in the hours of game time to achieve a certain level but to get any further in the game, or to beat an end of the level boss or something, they need an extra push. That push can come in the form of more powerful spells, weaponry, armour or whatever else the game requires to boost the player’s stats. To get hold of that equipment or bonus content, they need to purchase it from the in-game store. Some of the content costs just a few pounds but it soon lures them into the more expensive extras. Before they realise it, those few pound extras soon add up and the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the expensive object that pushes them into the new levels, and causes the parents much angst.

The developers and creators of the game have their point of view too. These developers have spent many hours of coding, testing, re-coding and marketing to help launch their game. It’s a painful, exhausting and often expensive process, so the company that launches the game will need to see some good returns if it still wants to continue in business and employing developers, testers and everyone else involved. All these people involved with the game need paying, so if they can top up the business with in-app purchases, added content and such, then why not.

Of course, that doesn’t help the parent or guardian who is now looking at their vastly diminished bank account. What there must be is some form of middle ground, where the developers still get paid and the company can keep producing exciting and great games. Here the players get to reach the levels they want and continue playing the game and parents and guardians can safely leave their children to play the game and purchase an upgrade or two, without breaking the bank.

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In light of events that hit the headlines, children spending thousands of pounds on purchasing virtual pets, virtual food, more lives etc., the main providers of mobile purchases, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and so on, started to roll out levels of restrictions to help prevent overspending. These restrictions vary and have improved greatly in recent years; but initially they we’re more centred around simple tips and advice for parents rather than the kind of spending restrictions we see today.

Of course, some of the problems also arise when the game in question is clearly a pay-to-win model. It’s hardly fair for the young person to enjoy the game when they’re continually beaten by those players who can afford to spend the money on extra lives, energy and so on. The pay to play model, on the other hand, requires the purchase of the app before it can even be played. Some experts argue that this is a better model but that’s up for debate.

One of the main causes for excessive in-app spending is a child or young person being left alone with the device and game whilst the parent was logged into their own account. The account itself doesn’t have any restrictions or password access to get into the online store, after all why would most people continually require password access to their own in-store account; or when the child knows the password and can easily access the store.

The child, left alone, could then go ahead and accept the message from the game that asked ‘to continue, buy more apples’ (or whatever), which in turn led them directly to the store to place the order in the basket without any kind of confirmation or message stating to check with an adult first.

Most of the time, when these sorts of scenarios occurred, the likes of Apple, Google and so on refunded the parents in question. From there, it became more difficult for a young person to go on an in-game spending spree with their parent’s account.

There’s a more controlled in-game and in-app spending focus these days but it’s still not unheard of for a child to get a little carried away and purchase several hundred on some form of virtual extras for the game. Thankfully, we can combat a sizeable percentage of these cases with a little education and some much-needed tips, which we’ll cover on the next couple of pages.

Tips on How to Stop In-app Overspending

In-app overspending, as we’ve seen, is a concern for parents and guardians whenever their children use a phone, tablet, console or computer. However, there is a happy middle ground, where the kids can still enjoy their game and the parents needn’t worry about in-app purchases.

There’s nothing wrong with spending money on a game, either to buy it in the first place or just to upgrade a part of it. What’s needed though, is a little thought to combat overspending.

Tip 1 – The main tip, and one that all child experts agree on, is simply don’t leave your child alone with a device, console or computer whilst playing the game. Naturally it depends on the age of the child but essentially it’s recommended never to leave a younger child alone, as that’s when rogue spending can occur.

Tip 2 – Set up their own account: using a child’s account will dramatically cut down on any in-app overspending. Generally speaking, most children won’t have access to a bank card to enter into the in-game shop or have access to the family bank details.

Tips on how to stop in-app overspending2

Tip 3 – If you’re using an iOS device, go to Settings > General > Restrictions and tap to enable the Restrictions. You can now create a passcode to lock out access to the iTunes Store, Safari and other Apple online portals, as well as other Apple apps.

Tip 4 – For Google devices, it’s best to either never enter your banking details into Google Play or swipe in from the left whilst in the Play Store, choose Settings and tap the Require Authentication for Purchases option.

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Tip 5 – For Microsoft accounts, use the steps from our previous pages to create a child’s account on your Windows 10 device; then use the Microsoft Family portal to restrict access to apps and spending.

Tip 6 – There’s nothing wrong with spending money on a game, so why not consider setting up a limited amount of money on a Microsoft account. The child then has to then manage their own budget on in-app spending.

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Tip 7 – Similarly, consider using a gift card for iTunes or Google Play to allow any in-app spending. This way it’s a more controlled purchasing environment and since the child is happy with the bonus app-extras, you’re happy with the spending and the developer still gets paid. Everyone is happy with the outcome.

Tip 8 – Enabling Airplane mode whilst the child is playing on the device stops any access to online services and thus the in-app or in-game stores. It’s not ideal, and it can easily be deactivated, but for younger children it’s a valid option.

Tip 9 – Talking to your children and taking the time to explain how in-app purchases work, and how bad it can be if they overspend, is a highly recommended option. Child experts state that the best policy to prevent overspending in apps and games is a little education.

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David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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