In-app purchases tempt kids to splurge online

November 4, 2017

Should underage children be permitted to play games using smartphone apps that could involve purchases with real-world money? Far from an idle question, this dilemma is at the heart of recent U.S. lawsuits that Apple, Google and Amazon settled for a combined $120 million.

A public opinion poll released at the end of October by the Angus Reid Institute in Vancouver, BC, finds that Canadians have little sympathy for parents about their offsprings’ unauthorized purchases. Fully six-in-ten (62%) say the parents, themselves, are to blame in such situations.

However, nearly half (48%) of respondents said that they would welcome federal government regulations aimed at preventing kids from buying digital goods—such as coins on Candy Crush— without parental supervision.

Overall, one-in-seven Canadians have personal experience with children buying something they weren’t supposed to on a mobile device – either because they live with the child in question or because it happened to a close friend or family member. Among those under age 35, exposure to situations like these rises to 20%.

What games are known for their temptations? Free apps are more likely than paid apps to charge for items that you can buy within the game, Molly Wood, an executive editor of CNET.com, a technology site, told the magazine Real Simple. In addition to Candy Crush, the games Tap Zoo and Dolphin Play have drawn criticism for their in-app charges, which can run as high as $30 a purchase. Low-cost games tempt users, too: Players of Bejeweled 2 can spend $9 on 1 million coins, which are redeemable for power-ups in the game.

Among the key findings of the Angus Reid Institute poll:

  • While more than seven-in-ten (72%) agree that “those over age 10 should know better than to make purchases on their parents’ mobile devices.” just 3% of Canadians say children under that age are most responsible when unauthorized purchases are made;
  • Three-quarters (75%) agree that “games that are designed for children or ‘all-ages’ should not allow in-app purchases,” but just one-in-ten (11%) blames app developers for unauthorized purchases by minors; and
  • Those who regularly download apps featuring in-app purchases (61%)are more likely to say government intervention is not needed in this area .

The polling organization notes that mobile games are a massive industry, which is expected to generate more than US$46 billion in 2017. Much of that revenue will come from in-app purchases in so-called “freemium” games—apps that are free to play, but offer players the ability to pay real money for in-game benefits. These may include gems or coins, which the user can buy to speed up play or gain access to new character outfits or game levels.

Indeed, the research found that fully 23% of Millennials have made such purchases. Add to that the fact that about 20% of Millennials had a child in their household or the child of a close friend or family member buy something in an app without parental consent. The rate drops to one-in-six (16%) among those ages 35–54, and to just one-in-20 (6%) among those in the 55+ age group.

Asked who bears the most responsibility, generally, for these situations, more than six-in-ten Canadians (62%) say “the parents.” It’s notable, however, that the group most likely to blame parents is those who have never had a child make an unauthorized purchase – and don’t know anyone who has.

Respondents who have some degree of personal connection to these types of situations are less likely to hold parents ultimately responsible.

It should be noted that, while most Canadians don’t say either children or app developers are most responsible for unauthorized purchases, there is widespread agreement that each group should bear some responsibility. Three-in-four Canadians (75%) agree with the statement, “Games that are designed for children or ‘all-ages’ should not allow in-app purchases”—a finding that suggests a belief that developers who do allow such purchases in their games are contributing to the problem.

When it comes to the degree of blame children deserve for making in-app purchases without their parents’ permission, the age of the child in question is clearly a key consideration. More than seven-in-ten Canadians (72%) agree that, while younger children can’t be held accountable, “those over age 10 should know better than to make purchases on their parents’ mobile devices.”

Research contact: shachi.kurl@angusreid.org