Making In-App Purchases Safe from Kids

Would you give a credit card to a 3-year-old?

Little boy using smartphone
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Most parents gladly let their kids use their iPhones to play a game now and again. It keeps them occupied for awhile so mom or dad can have a few fleeting moments of peace and quiet. Kids don't want to give parents their iPhone back which leads many parents buy their children their very own iPod Touch or iPad.

Most kids don't have their own credit cards, so mom and/or dad will have to either set up a new iTunes account using a credit card or add the child's iPod/iPad to their existing account so that they can purchase apps, music, and videos for their children.

This is where the problems begin.

Enter the In-app purchase. A lot of developers, game developers in particular, have adopted the "Freemium" app pricing model. Freemium basically means that they give their app away for free but charge real world money for access to additional content within the app.

Additional content available via in-app purchases might include things such as new outfits for a character in the game, virtual credits for purchasing items in the game (gems, brains, tokens, etc), special abilities for game characters, additional levels not accessible in the free version of the game, or the ability to skip a level that might be challenging (i.e. The Eagle in Angry Birds).

Some games are extremely limited unless the additional content is purchased. Freemium apps use the iTunes In-app purchase mechanism to streamline the purchase process so that it is easy for people to purchase items without leaving the game and going to the iTunes App Store.

The main problem is that unless parents are diligent and setup in-app purchase restrictions on their iPhone, iPod, or iPad, then little Johnny could rack up major credit card charges without the parents discovering it until they receive their monthly bill.

A close relative of mine found out this painful lesson when they received a bill containing over $500 worth of in-app purchases made by a 4-year old relative.

Kids may not even realize what they are doing, as was the case with the 4-year-old relative who couldn't even read, but was able to make in-app purchases regardless. Kids just press buttons and can blow through a lot of cash in a hurry by making these in-app purchases.

What Can You Do to Prevent Your Kids from Making Unauthorized In-App Purchases from Your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad?

You can restrict your kids from making in-app purchases by turning on iPhone parental controls and disabling the in-app purchase feature. Here's how:

1. Touch the "Settings" icon (the one with the gray gears on it) on your iOS device

2. Touch the "General" option on the screen that opens after touching the "Settings" icon.

3. Touch "Enable Restrictions" from the top of the screen.

4. Create a 4-digit code to prevent your child from disabling the restrictions that you are about to set. Make sure you remember this code. Type your code a second time to confirm it.

5. Scroll down to the "Allowed Content" section towards the bottom of the "Restrictions" page and turn the "In-app Purchases" switch to the "OFF" position.

Additionally, you might also want to change the "Require Password" option from "15 Minutes" to "Immediately".

This makes sure that every purchase attempt made requires a password confirmation. If it is set to 15 minutes then you only have to enter your password once, any additional purchase within a 15 minute time-frame uses the cached password. Your kid could rack up a lot of app purchases in 15 minutes which is why I recommend setting it to "Immediately".

There are additional parental controls available for restricting access to mature content, preventing the installation and/or deletion of apps. Check out our article on enabling parental controls for iOS devices for more details.