In-App Purchases: It’s Not the Parents’ Problem

Reports of kids racking up huge bills through in-app purchases (IAP) is certainly en vogue in the mainstream media at the moment. The tech media, too. When the story ingredients include young children, the (on occasion) largest company on the planet and mammoth credit card bills for normal, hardworking parents then you’re guaranteed eyes on the page. The conclusion being that Apple is, after all, evil.

For tech-heads like us, immersed in this technology every day, it’s easy to blame the parents. It’s wrong to do so, though — it’s just too convenient.

Parents are not dumb…they’re simply not aware that entering their password will give little Billy a 15-minute supermarket sweep.

Parents are not dumb. Yes, they’re busy but that does not make them stupid. They’re simply not aware that entering their password will give little Billy a 15-minute supermarket sweep. They’re not aware that IAPs are enabled by default and they’re certainly not aware that they can disable that thing (that they didn’t know about) that was already enabled.

Nor, as the tabloids might have it, is it Apple’s fault.

In-app purchases accounted for 53% of US iPhone App Store revenue in January 2012. This rose to a whopping 76% a little over a year later. The cynic might argue that there is little incentive for Apple to restrict such a lucrative revenue stream.

I’m not blaming Apple and I’m not blaming the parents. The problem is, I suggest, one of unintended consequences.

Apple does a fantastic job of making complex technology simple to use, but it remains complex technology — often with lots of different options. To you and I, it’s easy enough to use, but for Apple’s ever-increasing iOS-device owning customer base, there is perhaps less familiarisation with the vagaries and eccentricities of Apple’s mobile operating system.

In-App Purchase (IAP) Options are buried in Settings > General > Resstrictions

The fact is that Apple does allow the disabling of IAP from iOS devices. The problem stems from the facts that Apple:

  • Enables IAP by default
  • Enables a 15-minute window for purchases each time the password is entered correctly.
  • Does not impose any sort of IAP or app spending limit over limited time periods
  • There are not sufficient warnings in place regarding IAP – some people feel that they have been decieved
  • Options to reverse this are three-taps, or more, away in the Settings app on iOS

Given that the possibilty exists, Apple needs to examine how it can strike the right balance between the “frictionless” ease-of-use experience, for which it is famed, and the protection of consumers such that they do not become unwilling victims of a credit card bill shock.

On this occasion, Apple’s frictionless approach has been a little too frictionless.

On this occasion, Apple’s frictionless approach has been a little too frictionless.

Apple still has a job to do in educating people regarding in-app purchases and they’ve refunded some for big bills but this is a drop in the ocean. Apple has responsibility for preventing these crazy bills occurring in the first instance. Indeed, they’ve already started by identifying apps, in the App Store, that use IAP.

Perhaps — in the next iteration of iOS — disabling IAP by default, reducing or removing the default 15 minute password window, limiting the permitted spend on apps per day would be welcomed by parents who don’t yet know they need this protection?

No right-minded parent knowingly gives a five-year-old a credit card in a toy shop. The present system needs refining and, whilst it makes for good copy, it’s not the fault of the parents and I don’t think it is the fault of Apple, either.

  • Khürt Williams

    Removing the 15 minute grace period would annoy me to no end. I’m a parent. This is a failure of parental responsibility.

    • Johnny Winter

      It is not a failure of parental responsibility. Like I say, it is lazy to assume that.

      A lot of people are not as familiar with technology as you or I. Apple needs to strike a balance so as not to remove the frictionless approach you enjoy, whilst protecting people who don’t understand IAP. That is the point I am making.

      • Sam

        Its a parents responsibility to look after their child. If you are teaching them woodwork you don’t leave them alone with your tools so why would it be any different when they are using a piece of technology that gives them access to the web.

        My parents let me use their credit card for online purchases if I needed it yet I always knew that if I abused it I would never see the light of day. Kids are not stupid and nor are parents, they are simply lazy. When I had that card in my hands I could have bought anything I liked but they trusted me and wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t mature enough not to abuse it. I don’t see why this is any different.

        When you buy a new car I assume that you take the time to research it and learn about the car and its features. Why shouldn’t you do the same when buying something that can do as much as an iPad.

  • Hil

    Tis is an easy fix. IAPs need their own password. That will pretty much end the “accidental” purchases.

    • Johnny Winter

      More passwords? Really?

  • kralnor

    Not a parent, but if I was I don’t see any reason why I’d give my kid my apple ID password. Wouldn’t that solve the problem right there?

    • Johnny Winter

      This comment demonstrates just some of the misunderstanding surrounding the issue and, probably, indicates why people are quick to blame the parents.

      The issue is that a parent buys an app by entering their password – they then pass the device to the child to play the game. The child starts prodding things on the screen, some of which may be In-App Purchase buttons.

      Unknown to the parent is the fact that, once entered, there is a default 15-minute password window that allows subsequent purchases without the need for re-entering the password.

      The parent isn’t aware that it is still possible to buy stuff and the child is unaware that they are spending money – they don’t even understand that concept of, or mechanisms for, spending money.

      That’s the crux of the problem.

      • appsychedelic

        In countless times I’ve had to teach my co-workers, who now own an Apple product (iPhone/iPad) what IAP is, and in the end I just end up going to restrictions and disabling IAP completely, along with the “ask for password: immediately”.

        When Apple goes in the wild boasting themselves of being the friendly UI company, then you’d expect stricter control over things like IAP.

        So at first you read the horror stories of high-charging bills and you think “What kind of people would get into such trouble!!!!???”, but then some of my coworkers could have easily been in the same train, because of the loose control over this feature.

        So I think you are absolutely right when saying “that’s the crux of the problem”, which goes way beyond of “bad parenthood” or “misunderstanding of tech basics”.

  • Kodewulf

    I’ve seen too many apps that try to “bait-and-switch” the user into buying using IAP. The Talking applications are a prime example of this. It pops up a HUGE annoying “Buy this” add with a HUGE annoying “Buy”, and an almost invisible “Close” button. Apple should have stricter guidelines regarding the UI of ANY app that uses IAP. As a result of Apple not allowing “child” accounts linked to a “parent” account, my son is using MY account on HIS iPAD (he’s 5). All the apps on there are his. Why can’t I buy the app on my account, transfer it to his and have his account’s iAP disabled?

    • Johnny Winter

      I have removed apps from my iPad because of the bait-and-switch tactics. Some are almost unusable as you are hounded all the way to spend more money rather than use the app.


    • Sam

      I struggle to see the issue here. They have put a huge sign up saying “buy this” not “get this free” so where is the confusion. With the world of technology moving so quickly, why is the onus on the manufacturer to shove common sense information in our face.

      Apple would rather have people complaining about this every so often that complaining that whenever they do anything on their iPad it wants to confirm that was what they wanted. This is just how people are these days. No one wants to admit that they should have taken the time to learn or research something. They just act then behave like you would need to be part of mensa to have avoided the pitfall.

      If you don’t understand how something works, look it up.

    • appsychedelic

      Yes it is true. Although people like us who know what IAP is and how it works, it’s still annoying.
      And maybe unrelated to IAP per se but in the same vein, you don’t know how many -annoying- times I’ve accidentally clicked the wrong “part of the screen” on apps such as Icon Pop Quiz and bang, I’m taken outside the app to the AppStore etc.
      So there is a serious issue on Apple guidelines as you say.