App games should not pressure children into purchases

Posted on 26 September 2013

The Office of Fair Trading has published the results of its investigation into whether children are being unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content in web and app-based games. 

Web and app-based games are enormously popular among young people - and adults! Often they are free at the point you access them, but then to progress in the game you may be offered or required to make real-money purchases. In March, the BBC reported that a five-year-old boy accidently spent £1,700 playing games on an iPad; his father had put in a pass code believing his son was playing a free game.

The OFT investigation found that some games were using potentially unfair commercial practices that children may be particularly susceptible to. For example, the BBC reported that OFT saw ‘games that led children through an adventure but then withheld a promised reward until they spent money, and instances where the title made the player feel bad by telling them a virtual animal was "ill" but could be made better if the gamer made a purchase.’

The OFT has published a report of the main issues they identified, and proposed Principles to ensure that children are protected. They are inviting comments on the principles until 21 November 2013, using this form, or by email to [email protected].

Cavendish Elithorn, OFT Executive Director, said:

'This is a new and innovative industry that has grown very rapidly in recent years, but it needs to ensure it is treating consumers fairly and that children are protected. The way the sector has worked with us since we launched our investigation is encouraging, and we've already seen some positive changes to its practices. These principles provide a clear benchmark for how games makers should be operating. Once they are finalised, we will expect the industry to follow them, or risk enforcement action.’

How can I prevent my child making in-app purchases?

Lots of smartphones and tablets allow you to set up restrictions to block in-app purchases. Find out more about how to do this in our Parents’ Guide to Technology. We developed this as part of our work as the UK Safer Internet Centre, as we’d heard lots of questions from parents about how to ensure their children are safe when using smartphones, gaming devices, tablets and other internet-connected devices.

Ofcom has also produced video guides outlining the steps parents and others can take to protect against the main causes of mobile phone and tablet 'bill shock', including how to turn off or password protect in-app purchases.

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