Over the last few years, there has been a deluge of headlines about the shocking sums children have unknowingly spent on mobile phone games, £1,000 on Roblox, £3,000 on virtual farming, £2,000 on EA's NBA basketball, the list goes on…
Ofcom found that two-thirds of 8 -11 year-olds are playing games online, meaning the market for potentially 'accidental or misguided' in-app purchases is huge, and the big app creators know this.
Top App Store games are incredibly easy to use, brightly coloured and offer small addictive hits of dopamine making them perfect vessels in which to exploit the naivety of children for profit. Studies have shown that mobile phone games specifically made and advertised as ‘for children’ are designed on purpose to manipulate children into making purchases.
Often the apps that children are playing mobile games on are themselves free to download but include a variety of ‘in-app purchases’, these are usually small costs (that can range from 50p up to £9.99 and beyond). These purchases help a player unlock functions inside the game, such as enhancing a player's abilities, changing their avatar's aesthetic, accessing loot boxes and new game content.
In 2019, research found that almost 50% of young people said playing mobile games is only fun when they’re spending money, and that they would be judged and shunned by other players if they had not paid to enhance the default character design. Peer pressure and the allure of unlocking new game features are very powerful tools that games use to get young children to spend. With so much energy being invested into getting your children to spend it is important you know what games your children are playing and how they might be playing them, before they accidentally rack up a large bill!
Advice for parents and carers:
Keza MacDonald, the Guardian’s Video Games Editor, suggests parents try downloading Apple Arcade and playing their curated list of phone games with their children, particularly:
· Charrua Soccer
· Card of Darkness
· Manifold Garden
· Really Bad Chess
These games offer more of an intellectual experience and are less focused on selling in-app purchases.
There are digital fixes you can put in place to stop or minimise in-app spending. Apple and Android phones let you turn off in-app purchases or set password requirements before purchases are made. You can find step-by-step guides for how to do this on your particular phone by googling it.
It is important to talk to your child about in-app spending so that it does not become a secret problem or something they do by accident. You could talk to your child and agree on a limit which they can use and put in place tools to make sure they stick to it, this could open up important conversations about making mistakes online and the consequences of them.
If you think your child might be addicted to in-game spending, gambling or similar, you can get help here: https://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/public-and-players/guide/page/how-can-i-talk-to-my-child-about-gambling
 https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/media-literacy-research/childrens/children-and-parents-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2019  https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/children-apps-manipulative-design-games-b2104084.html  https://parentzone.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-12/PZ_The_Rip-off_Games_2019.pdf  https://www.theguardian.com/games/2023/jan/11/the-true-cost-of-free-mobile-games