Put a five year old in the middle of the high street with a credit card and the PIN number. The best thing that is going to happen is that he or she will buy the contents of the nearest toy shop. It could be an awful lot worse.
A point I have made many times is that the web is an analogue of the real world. All human life is here. Give a child an internet-connected tablet or smartphone and you give them access to every corner of human life. I would argue that doing so does not constitute responsible parenting.
And yet when children are reported to have run up huge bills on one or other App Store — usually Apple’s — it seems to be the companies that come in for criticism. For allowing developers to promote free games with integrated shops for buying upgrades. For those upgrades being too expensive. For shopping being too easy on these devices.
Often Apple ends up refunding the parents. But let’s be clear here about what has happened. The child has been given an internet connected tablet. They have been left for long enough to make these purchases. And the parents have either entered the password for them (at least once for the game itself and again for the first in-app purchase), or given them the password to authorise the purchases themselves. High street, credit card, PIN number.
I readily accept that parents need help keeping up with the fast pace of technology change to which their children are usually so much better adapted. But the child wouldn’t be able to make purchases unless the parents had already entered their credit card details into the App Store, so there’s a limit to how much ignorance can be used as a defence.
The response to this problem, and to new legislation on privacy from the US, is a dedicated kids section of the App Store. Apps inside this section will have new restrictions placed on them.
Second there will be clear age categories for games, showing which ranges they are suitable for.
And third, there will be an extra parental gateway, to give parents another opportunity to realise they are handing over cash to their small children if they keep on entering the password.
If I were a parent whose child had run up a multi-thousand pound bill on iTunes then I’m sure I would be seeking to get the money back. And I’d feel like an absolute idiot (even more so given my position on this subject), But I’d also recognise that the failing was fundamentally mine, not the service provider’s.
Apple has had to take steps to protect us from ourselves and from our tech-savvy tots. It’s a welcome move, but it’s not the answer. Just like state-sponsored censorship of the web is no solution.
Parents need to remain educated about the world their child is growing up in, however hard that may be. It’s part of being responsible and it is the only way to protect our children in a connected age. I will say it again: give your child unrestricted, unsupervised access to the web and a big credit card bill is far from the worst thing that might happen.