Apps are everywhere – on our phones, TVs and even in our cars. While this means we can access games, content and advice wherever we are, it also makes it harder to track what our children are playing, watching and buying, says Andy Robertson
A case in point is the recent story of five-year-old Danny Kitchen, who managed to spend £1,700 on in-app purchases while playing Zombies V Ninja on his parents’ iPad as they entertained guests. He thought he was just playing a game when, in fact, he was spending money. His parents thought they were handing him some entertainment when it was more like putting their credit card in his hands.
It’s a warning to all busy parents that a tablet or phone shouldn’t be used as a dummy to keep a child quiet. But the potential dangers of apps aren’t just financial. There’s a growing tendency to let children choose the media they consume, which means parents know less about what their children are experiencing and understand less about how that experience functions.
Parents who wouldn’t buy an 18-rated game or film for their children will happily hand over a smartphone or tablet that allows kids to download all sorts of grown-up apps. Whether it’s gambling, gaming or age-sensitive content, it can be surprising what’s available to the curious browser.
The first thing to do here is to close the in-app purchase loophole. Shane Richmond of the Daily Telegraph has some good advice for ‘freemium’ downloads where the ‘application itself might be free but various add-ons will be offered to you as in-app purchases’. He outlines how to set up Android, iOS and Amazon’s Kindle Fire devices to avoid the problem.
Something he doesn’t cover is the Kid’s Corner app for Windows Phone devices. This creates a safe user area for children. Speaking to the Sharp family recently, it was interesting to hear their concerns and thoughts about the safe app: ‘The trouble is when they use my phone they can access anything. Once you put them in Kids Corner they’re safe – I like that.’
What these changes are effectively achieving is to set up the device for multiple people, rather than the default single-user configuration. This means you will need to enter a password or PIN to make purchases and access particular content. It will also limit access to financial transactions on the device.
This certainly solves the immediate problem, but it’s like plugging a leak. We need to rethink the way we use this sort of technology in our families. We need to use it collaboratively. Of course there are occasions when children want to do something on their own, but I’d keep this sort of technology in a family space rather than off in a bedroom.
If technology is used in a shared family space, be that a living room, kitchen table or play room, the need to police them is much reduced. Because the screens are visible to the rest of the family, the child is more likely to self-police and, if they do come across something unexpected, they can talk to parents in the room.
And it also means the whole family is more likely to get involved in what’s happening in a game. This increases engagement all round and results in a more enjoyable and beneficial experience for the children.
Talk of parental controls and family settings sounds a bit draconian, and may give the impression that we don’t trust our children but, in my family, setting them up has created an ideal context in which to discuss these issues. This is about more than just control – it’s about understanding and education.
Both parents and children learn about how to behave online, and the challenges they may face there, by talking about appropriate behaviour and etiquette. The sorts of content that my kids are sensitive to is not always what I expect. By sharing the experiences with them, whether by playing together or discussing things afterwards, I’ve learned as much about them as individuals as I have the benefits and pitfalls of technology.
Every family is different, but my suggestion is to find a way to enjoy apps, games and media together. If this means the technology migrates back to shared family spaces, that’s all the better.
Incidentally, Apple did refund Danny’s parents the £1,700 he inadvertently spent, but only after a lot of chasing on their part and a lot of crying on his – and not everyone will be so lucky. It’s another very good reason to keep apps where you can see them.