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How bad is IAP abuse in children’s apps?

By on May 16, 2013
CC image by Anthony Kelly
CC image by Anthony Kelly

We know that it is easy for unsupervised children playing with iOS devices to buy items in games with their parents’ billing information. Mark Sorrell recently criticised Playmobil Pirates for the aggressive way that it pushes its expensive IAPs on vulnerable young minds. Some Gamesbriefers are calling for a ‘kid mode’ to be implemented that will protect families from unwanted purchases. Others argue that parents simply need to be educated about how to use the existing OS-level protections against accidental spending.

So how seriously should game developers take this issue? Some headlines have made the bold claim that over £30 million every month is spend without parents’ permission. However, closer inspection seems to suggest that this is exaggerated. Will Luton has an excellent post up at his personal website looking at survey data on parents’ experiences with unexpectedly high bills: Children and Unauthorised IAPs: how bad is the problem?

On average, parents who have experienced unauthorized payments from their children and have identified as having ‘bill shock’ have at some point seen an amount on their “monthly bill” (most smartphone app stores bill straight away and provide emailed recent on the day or after, so this also confused) for, on average, £34.18.

This average amount only applies to the 23.35% [of families who have experienced bill shock], and not all parents as implied in the press release, which states:

UK parents have spent on average an extra £34 on their smartphone and tablet bills, because of their kids’ app and in-app purchases that they were unaware of, totalling over £30 million for parents across the nation.

While this extrapolation to £30 million is accurate, the claim it is monthly across the UK, as below, is misleading:

Therefore, 28.15% of 3,869,500 parents = 1,089,264 parents. 82.95% of 1,089,264 parents X £34.18 = £30,883,157 (monthly spend on unauthorised apps and in-app purchases)

There is a clear need for more research into children’s spending on parents’ phones, and accurate reporting of the results of that research. The OFT is investigating whether game design practices are in line with existing regulations in the UK; if new regulations are to be avoided, the industry needs a better understanding internally of IAP abuse. Will Luton is asking those with information on the scale of the problem to get in touch. Those interested can do so at will-luton.co.uk.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at Pocketgamer.biz and The Borderhouse.