The rising popularity of online gaming apps has created a new issue for parents. These games can often inspire children to dip into the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to keep playing, so how can you stop it? When games are created to encourage more spending, how can you safeguard children against them?

Spending online

In December 2015, the Daily Mail reported that one child recently managed to spend a huge £4,000 of his father’s money online. Mohammed Shugaa discovered that his seven-year-old son Faisall had downloaded the iTunes game Jurassic World and 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, which processes payment details and only has to be typed in once to facilitate multiple payments.

Faisal 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.

Raising questions

Mohammed argued that since his child was only seven-years-old, he didn’t know the value of money and 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 this account and contact the account holder (i.e. the father) to request further authentication before these transactions were processed?

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 example clearly illustrates that it’s more important than ever for parents to educate their children on how to act online.

ASA rulings

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.

Last year, 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 encrouages 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’).

Existing regulation

As previously suggested, the ASA’s CAP Code lists a series of regulations which are 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 be specifically aimed at digital media, but as the ASA’s rulings prove, they can be applied 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 make sure that payments aren’t taken 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.

Protection tips

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 what pitfalls to look out for.

You should:

  • Do your research: Before you let your child download a game, sign up to a social media site etc. make sure you check its ‘terms and conditions.’ This will inform you of whether the site or app in question is appropriate for your child and if it requires any form of online payment.
  • Talk: We strongly suggest that you explain the concept of the ‘digital footprint’ to your children before you let them use the internet. Show them how they leave a digital trail behind every time they use the internet, and that failing to think before acting online can have serious consequences in the future.
  • 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 ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of communicating online, so they tread carefully when playing app-based games, posting on social media etc.
  • 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 can nip the problem in the bud before it gets worse.
  • 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 use said device to make an in-game purchase.
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