The rising popularity of online gaming apps creates a new issue for parents. These games can inspire children to dip into the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to keep playing. When games are created to encourage more spending, how can you safeguard against them?
In December 2015, the Daily Mail reported that one child managed to spend thousands of pounds of his father’s money online. Mohammed Shugaa discovered that his seven-year-old son Faisall had downloaded the iTunes game Jurassic World. Faisall spent £3,911 on upgrading his dinosaurs whenever prompted to do so.
Shugaa was aware that his son knew the password to access his Dad’s iPad. However, Mohammed didn’t know Faisal had memorised his Apple ID. This processes payment details and only has to be typed in once to facilitate multiple payments.
Faisall used the Apple ID to make 60 separate payments from his Dad’s bank account, who wasn’t aware of this until his bank card was declined.
Mohammed argued that since his child was only seven, he didn’t know the value of money. He couldn’t possibly know what these payments really meant.
It raises a valid point; why didn’t Apple or iTunes realise that a large amount of online payments were being executed on the account? Why did they not contact the account holder (i.e. the father) to request further authentication?
Furthermore, this story highlights how gaming companies target apps at young consumers. This raises questions about whether these businesses have an obligation to safeguard children when playing their games online, instead of encouraging payment at whatever cost.
This clearly illustrates that it’s more important than ever for parents to educate their children about how to act online.
The above example further suggests that the UK government needs to introduce greater regulations to protect families from the way their children behave when playing online games.
However, the UK’s Advertising Standard’s Authority (ASA – the country’s advertising industry body) does act in some cases.
In 2015, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) raised complaints against two online gaming companies to the ASA. The firms were Mind Candy, which owns the game ‘Moshi Monsters,’ and 55 Pixels Limited, which developed the game ‘Bin Weevils.’
Both feature ‘virtual currencies’ and provide certain activities which are only available to paying members.
The CMA raised concerns that children were being encouraged to make purchases in these games. According to Wraggle Law, an international law firm, the ASA upheld the CMA’s complaints against both Mind Candy and 55 Pixels Limited on the grounds that their games put pressure on young players to make payments. In breach of the ASA’s non-broadcast code of advertising standards (‘CAP Code’).
As previously suggested, the ASA’s CAP Code lists a series of regulations designed to shield children from irresponsible advertising.
This code states that advertisers must not include a “direct exhortation to children to buy an advertised product.”.It also says that “marketing communications that contain a direct exhortation to buy a product via a direct-response mechanism must not be directly targeted at children.”
‘Direct response mechanisms’ includes payment systems, which lack face-to-face contact with the marketer, like those included in app-based online games.
These regulations may not aim specifically at digital media. But, as the ASA’s rulings prove, they can apply to advertisers who target children away from close parental supervision.
Also, the CMA brought its case based on a previous investigation of the children’s app-based game market conducted by its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).
The OFT outlined eight principles that the industry should follow under existing UK consumer protection law.
For example, games makers should reveal information about the game’s associated costs clearly, before the consumer begins to play or agrees to make a purchase.
They should also be making sure that they don’t take payments from the account holder unless authorised. Therefore the ASA’s rulings show that there’s existing regulation you can use to bring a case against online app-based game makers.
As a parent or guardian, there are some things you can do yourself to ensure that your children don’t get to this point. Our guide on Managing Your Teenager’s Personal Information Online outlines how to educate children on safely using the internet, and avoid the pitfalls.
- Do your research: Before you let your child download a game or sign up to a social media site, check its ‘terms and conditions.’ This will inform you of whether the site or app is appropriate for your child and requires any online payment.
- Talk: We strongly suggest explaining the concept of the ‘digital footprint’ to your children before they use the internet. Show them how they leave a digital trail behind every time they use the Internet. They should know that failing to think before acting can have consequences.
- Establish ground rules: If your child doesn’t know what is and isn’t acceptable online, they’re far more likely to act irresponsibly. Set out clear guidelines and spell out the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of communicating online.
- Monitor online activity: Children don’t always follow the rules, so it’s your job to make sure they do. ‘Google’ their name and check their social media sites to ensure they’re acting responsibly online. Also, check your bills regularly to see if they’ve made any in-game purchases. If they have, contact the game operator immediately so you resolve the issue.
- Check devices: Ensure that any devices your children use e.g. computers, laptops, mobile phones, are securely managed. Furthermore, check the device’s ‘purchase settings’ and don’t share passwords with your children, so they can’t make an in-game purchase.