A fairly large uproar in my neck of the woods struck media outlets today as news of a mother suing Google over $66 of in-app purchases made by her 5-year-old activated the 'Debate' switch in parents and non-parents alike. This news caught my attention from a parenting website that I frequent, and given that I am both a parent and a tech enthusiast this seemed like an issue that was right up my alley. Mixing kids with modern technology like smartphones and tablets is already a complex and controversial subject as it is, but the biggest question that seemed to stem from this news article was whose fault the app purchases are in the first place. Does the mother have a rhyme or reason for suing Google, or is the mother simply unwilling to learn a harsh lesson on children handling electronics containing sensitive information at an early age?
Here is the thing about a lot of applications on the market: While many of them are free or cheap to download, a lot of them enable in-app purchases, some of which can support up to $100 or so a day before you hit any type of limit. Another thing people may or may not know about these applications is that a lot of the time these in-app purchases are enabled in games that are likely to appeal to kids. In this particular case, the 5-year-old racked up $66 worth of charges in an app called "Marvel Run Jump Smash!", an application that costs $0.99 in the Google Play Store, and also clearly states that the game offers in-app purchases.
But just because a game offers in-app purchases doesn't necessarily indicate that children can complete in-app purchases on their own - and as long as the parent hasn't typed in their password in the Play Store with the first 30 minutes of the child playing a game, then no harm no foul. However, anytime a password has been typed in and the 30-minute timer hasn't run out, you - or anybody, for that matter - can make purchases until that half an hour is up. This is all with Google's password protection turned 'On'. There is currently no option that requires password activation for each individual purchase. So for 30 minutes, your debit or credit card information is at the mercy of your child should you hand it off to them after typing in your password just once in the Play Store.
Because of this, and learning this same lesson myself a time or two by having a trigger-happy 3-year-old who loves to press buttons, I can understand the mother's frustration towards Google. On the surface "Password Protection" looks like it saves you from any unwarranted purchases, but you have to look deeper than the surface to find out that you are only mostly protected. Not necessarily because of children who aren't under a constant watchful eye, but because there is no option that requires the password each and every time any purchase is requested I feel that there is some blame on Google. This very same situation happened in a lawsuit against Apple that was solved last year, to which Apple made appropriate changes to their app store to better ensure that unexpected bills for apps don't happen. It would seem like a good idea for Google to follow suit since they also don't have much to offer in terms of in-app purchase protection.
On the other hand, you have the people saying it is the parent's fault for not watching their child the entire time they're using the phone. This is something that I would also have to agree with, to some degree, because as I mentioned before I have been in this exact same situation. An application looked kid-friendly, was free to download, and yet the next thing I know I had a mysterious charge on my credit card for a SpongeBob Diner Dash game. This was probably the first time I actually took the time to read in to why this happened and learned about the 30-minute password deal. While I did think there should be an option to password protect everything, this did teach me to take a closer to look at what all a game entails and how my child can interact with it.
It also encouraged me to seek out apps or ways that made my phone "kid friendly", which led me to find "Kid Mode" on the market. I currently use Kid Mode for my son when he's using my Android devices. Without Kid Mode, I wouldn't be able to let him use my phone without hovering over his shoulder. With it, I'm not worried about what he's doing inside the phone. While I feel that children should be supervised to a degree when it comes to smartphones, there are solutions out there that make it so parents won't have to watch every move their child makes on their phone. (This also seems like a good time to praise Windows Phone's Kid's Corner, because it does an excellent job of taking care of all of these issues right out of the box.)
In the end, I feel that there is blame on both ends. Google really should have an option that requires password protection each and every time a purchase is requested, and parents need to take extra care to understand exactly what it is they're downloading for their child (no matter what).
For the time being, however, I would highly recommend checking out Kid Zone or other related apps if you have children that you let play with your Android device. Not only does it save your wallet, but it also gives you peace of mind about the rest of your data on your phone while your child enjoys safe applications, checked by you, made just for them. Alternatively, if you don't plan on making many application purchases you can attach a prepaid card with a small amount of money to the account.
Readers, what are your thoughts on this issue? Do you let your kids use your smartphone without supervision? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!