Together with his 12-year-old brother Brady, Fortnite fan Finn Gilbert, aged 10, racked up nearly US$1000 on in-game purchases before they - or their parents - realised what was happening.
Shocking? Yes. Increasingly common? Also yes.
“I was like, ‘How did this happen?’” mum Trish Gilbert recalled. “I thought we had an agreement …”
The agreement was simple. If the boys wanted to make a digital purchase, they needed parental approval first. But in the chaos of the pandemic, with parents working from home and the kids in remote schooling, monitoring the boys’ screen-time became a low priority. And they had never used parental controls that would have blocked in-game purchases.
The boys were dimly aware that they’d spent a bit on V-Bucks, the Fortnite currency, to outfit their avatars with skins and weapons. But the actual amount - $995 - came as a shock.
Research shows that Brady and Finn were definitely part of a wider trend in 2020. Gamers spent a head-spinning total of US$100 billion globally last year. For comparison, that’s more than the GDP of Cuba, Slovakia, Sri Lanka and dozens of other nations. It also represents a rise of 18% over 2019.
It’s not just a V-Bucks issue. Roblox spends have also exploded. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Kids’ Roblox spending came as a shock to so many parents during the pandemic, when its popularity exploded, that ParentsTogether, a nonprofit family advocacy group, issued a warning about it to its 2.5 million members.”
Gamers spent a head-spinning total of US$100 billion globally last year.
One mother admitted she only discovered her eight-year-old had charged “thousands” to her credit card at tax time, when her accountant queried the multiple charges to Roblox on her statements.
“It got to the point where he’d get a new avatar, and he’d need another one and another one,” she explained sheepishly. “It seemed so harmless because it’s $4.99 here and $7.99 there. It just adds up.”
What parents can do
First things first: Ditch the shame and guilt.
The pandemic took its toll and almost every family in the world. Screen-time skyrocketed. Parental supervision tanked. We know this. Let’s move on to some practical steps for the future.
On the Apple App Store kids’ unauthorised purchases can be prevented by setting up a passcode the Screen Time function. Do your kids have their own devices? Set up Family Sharing and enable “Ask to Buy.”
On the Google Play Store your child’s purchases on any app or game in the Family section will require authentication automatically. Outside of that section, there’s a way to enable this feature too - but if you use your Google account on multiple devices, or use multiple accounts, this can get really complicated.
On Xbox you can control in-game spends through the family settings controls.
On Nintendo Switch a parental control app can be activated to manage spending.
On PlayStation you can set up parental controls as well, but you’ll need your own PlayStation Network account, plus an account for each child
And if that sounds complicated - well, that’s because it is. A far simpler solution is to use a parental control tool that works across all devices, networks, apps and games, yet allows for customisation based on your preferences and your child’s age.
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