With word coming through that a group of parents is suing Apple over bills racked up via in-
app purchases through freemium games like Smurf’s Village and Tap Zoo, it seems like it’s a
great time to offer some refresher tips for parents who let their youngsters play on their iPods,
iPhones and iPads.
These apps are free to download but offer shortcuts or extra in-game items to players who are
willing to spend real money. While many adults are able to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis
on whether spending that money is really worth it, kids just aren’t equipped to fully grasp the
value of a dollar at that age, especially when the spending seems to be taking place only in-
Additionally, young kids are playing these games and can’t even read, or have learned basics
such as OK or Yes in order to continue. So they unwittingly rack up bills as they try and
progress through the game.
As the founder of FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com, a website dedicated to providing information
on games and apps that are appropriate for families, you’d think I would have known better than
to let something like this happen to me. But in 2010, my three-year old son managed to rack up
more than $100 worth of Smurfberries on our iTunes account. When alerted to the charges, I
immediately sent e-mails to Apple and Capcom (the game’s publisher, who has since changed
their name to Beeline Interactive), and after a couple of phone calls the next day we were
fortunately able to get the charges reversed.
Officially, the breakdown was pinned on the fact that my iTunes account was still logged in
when my son had played (even though I know it had been longer than 15 minutes since I
downloaded the game). But that’s not the point. The larger point is how easy this App and
others like it made it for my son to unwittingly rack up a big bill.
I was lucky to be able to get the charges reversed, but it turns out I wasn’t alone. Others who
should seemingly know better have had it happen to them. While researching this subject for
the Modern Parents’ Guide series of books, we’ve talked to game developers, executives at
mobile companies, and other tech-savvy parents who have had similar experiences. If we as
experts had our kids falling into this “App Trap,” then what does that mean is happening to other
families around the country?
There are some basic tips that every parent should do before allowing their kids to play Apps on
The first thing any parent should do is go in and disable the ability to make in-App purchases.
It’s actually pretty simple, and we’ll detail the steps for you here:
To disable In-App purchases, locate these settings by tapping Settings > General >
Restrictions. To Enable Restrictions, tap Enable Restrictions and enter a passcode. The
passcode will be required to make changes to these settings. You should then scroll
down, and the first option after the Allowed Content heading will be In-App Purchases.
You will want to make sure that this is setting is turned to “Off.”
While you are there, you can also choose to restrict access to the following applications
and features on the device by switching them to “Off”:
- App installation
- App deletion
- Account changes
- Multiplayer games in Game Center
- Adding friends in Game Center
- Music and podcasts
- TV shows
(this process can also be found here: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4213 )
While you’re there, you should also manage settings for ratings for Movies, Music & Podcasts,
TV Shows and Apps, setting them at a level that’s appropriate for your family.
All of these settings can only be changed with the four-digit passcode you select for the device,
so make sure your kids don’t have access to that if you’re worried they may try and manually
override those settings.
Additionally, many families choose to use only iTunes gift cards which they purchase at a real-
life store as a way to purchase items from the App store. That way, there’s no chance for a
credit card to be used to rack up these large bills.
As parents, we absolutely bear responsibility to keep a close eye on our children’s media
consumption, and should have a good idea of the content of any games and activities they’re
engaged in. So while some may complain that these refunds are ludicrous and families should
pay for letting their kids play unattended in the first place, the truth is there’s an expectation (and
it’s not an unreasonable one) that the games are kid have access to aren’t being designed to
trick them into spending money. As an expert and a parent, it’s with great interest that we’ll be
following Apple’s response and the rest of the developments in this case.
Has something like this happened to your family? Do you think this case is ridiculous and that
it’s the parents’ responsibility to pay these bills? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Johner Riehl is a writer, author and expert on issues regarding families and technology. As
founder of FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com, he highlights games that are fun for playing
together, and as featured writer and co-author of Scott Steinberg’s Modern Parents Guidebook
series, he’s interviewed and compiled research from hundreds of experts and sources about the
topics of online safety, kids’ media consumption and more. He lives in San Diego with his wife
and three sons.