Bad Apple? Who's To Blame For Kids' In-Game Shopping Sprees?

Mar 14, 2013 2:25 PM ET

Guest post written by Lynette Owens on

Lynette Owens is Global Director, Internet Safety for Kids & Families, at Trend Micro, a security software firm. 

This is a story about Apple and a group of angry parents whose kids did something they shouldn’t have.

It involves allegedly deceptive marketing practices, app-loving minors, parents who can afford to let their kids have or use Apple devices, and a class-action lawsuit against one of the most cash rich companies in the world.This is a story about Apple and a group of angry parents whose kids did something they shouldn’t have.

But the story within this story is one that underscores the challenge we face in helping our kids be safe and responsible tech enthusiasts: Whose job is it?

The Root of the Problem

In April 2011, five parents took issue with Apple because they believed the company tricked their kids into racking up hundreds of dollars in credit-card charges playing supposedly free games. Once they were hooked, kids could easily continue the fun by buying items or more time with the tap of a screen.

Apple says that while games are often free to download, there often will be options to use real money while playing it. There are two features in iOS to stop this: a restriction that turns off in-app purchasing and a password required for any charge on the iTunes account for that device. (The second of these features was added right around the time the lawsuit was filed.)

However, we may never see these arguments play out in court. In the end, Apple chose not to fight the battle and agreed to a $100 million settlement. Under the terms, they’re offering a $5 iTunes credit to as many as 23 million people who downloaded the apps in question. Even to the technology novice, it is clear there’s plenty of blame to go around. To Apple, for not setting higher expectations with developers who specifically design apps for children and for not giving parents enough control over what’s charged against their iTunes accounts. To the app developers, for purposely enticing kids to buy things without understanding real money was involved. And finally, to the parents, for downloading apps but not taking the time to read the fine print or having greater oversight of what their kids were doing with their devices.

This is not a clear cut case of good vs. evil. It’s one of so many adults not putting our children first.

Apple as Babysitter

Mobile devices are attractive to people of all ages and apps are an integral part of that attraction, as evidenced by the 40 billion apps downloaded by iPhone, iPod and iPad customers as of January. Some of Apple’s biggest fans are under 10 years old, and apps keep them engaged and occupied.

But another recent story from the U.K. highlights the challenge at hand. It isn’t a lawsuit but a case of an iPad as babysitter gone awry. While his parents were busy with house guests, a five-year-old boy asked for his parents’ iPad and password to play a free app. They gave it to him and left him alone. The result? Over $2,500 (1,700 pounds) charged to iTunes in one day, on an app designed for kids aged 9+. How was he able to download it? How long was he playing unsupervised to have spent that much? Apple refunded the family the money, but I think everyone involved ended up with a loss.

Stop finger pointing, start caring

Both of these cases are a wake-up call for parents, technology companies and anyone else responsible for raising our kids to truly understand the power of Internet-connected devices. Where are we really if every time kids misuse technology, parents sue, resulting in companies paying out settlements and only marginally improving the technology in question? It’s an untenable situation that ultimately leaves nobody responsible for making sure we’re raising tech-savvy kids. Pay people off. Change no behavior.

Technology companies can do better by our kids if they considered how families might use their products before they built anything. Apple and its developer community should improve simple things like the consistency of its app age-rating system, so even Apple’s own age filter would work. When I set the app filter at age 4+, Instagram is blocked, but Facebook isn’t. They could also disclose how an app works, including the potential for in-app purchases, in a consistent manner similar to how apps Tap Pets Hotel and Candy Crush have done. One-tenth of the $100 million Apple’s willing to pay out in the settlement could go a long way to educate parents and kids on being digitally savvy.

Parents need to spend as much time telling our kids about proper and responsible technology use as we do about personal hygiene, social interactions, or study habits. We don’t have the luxury of childhood experience with the Internet to inform the wisdom we impart on our kids, but we can take the time to understand the devices, apps, or games we’re giving them by trying them ourselves or even using them with our kids. We should set rules about technology use, make sure kids are clear about how their online actions might affect themselves or others, set good examples for them, and even let them make and learn from their mistakes. We can’t expect anyone or any technology to do it for us.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to start putting our kids first. Apple has a lot of cash, but they can’t settle their way out of similar situations $100 million at a time forever; and parents may lose more than a few thousand dollars if they ignore their role in teaching kids to use technology responsibly. This isn’t difficult. But it starts with all of us caring just a little bit.

Maybe there’s an app for that.

This post originally appeared on Posted with permission of the author.