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Parents need to take control of children’s smartphone bills and social media use, warns regulator

16 January 2013

Parents who don’t talk to their children about what they spend on smartphones can be hit with bills that run into hundreds or even thousands of pounds, PhonepayPlus, the UK regulator of premium rate telephone services warns in a report published today.

The PhonepayPlus report, Children as Connected Consumers, lays out the regulator’s plans and priorities to tackle the problem and help children and parents understand the potential costs involved in the use of smartphones and other connected devices. Two areas of particular risk are highlighted in the report – risks around free apps and risks around social media linked to smartphones.

Complaints to the regulator about children and apps rose 300% in a year. The report highlights children’s attraction to free apps, with 2-in-3 11-16 year olds downloading a free app onto their phones. However, as the report also shows, there are risks from apparently free services, with malware and in-app billing being particularly risky for children. In-app billing occurs when an initially free app charges for extras once it is downloaded. Malware contains malicious coding that charges the phone without the user’s knowledge or consent. In one case, children as young as 11 years old downloaded free versions of popular games from the Android app store such as Angry Birds, Assassin’s Creed and Cut the Rope. These fake apps charged £15 to the user’s phone bill every time the app was opened without the user’s knowledge.

Social media accessed via smartphones and tablets is also an area where parents need to be alert. Premium rate services promoted via social media has seen an explosion in recent years, with a 575% increase in users discovering services this way. The report highlights cases where individuals and promoters have taken advantage of children’s trust and naivety on social media platforms. In one case a 14 year old girl was tricked into paying for virtual credits in a game when a social media ‘friend’ said she had no credits to phone her dying grandmother. In another case, children between 12-14 year olds were tricked into ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ a promotion for supermarket vouchers on Facebook, virally spreading the promotion which misled users into taking part in a premium rate competition. 

PhonepayPlus took robust action in all of these cases and is working with Facebook to ensure that rogue promotions on Facebook are cut off.

Parents can also take steps to help their children enjoy smartphones and social media while avoiding the pitfalls. PhonepayPlus’ tips for parents include:

  1. Register the phone as a child’s phone with your mobile network before you give it to them.
  2. Talk to your mobile network about the controls available, for example a pay-as-you-go account or blocking certain services, and make sure you are clear and happy about what is being offered – for example ‘unlimited texts’ is highly unlikely to include premium rate texts.
  3. Teach your child to stop and think before they input their mobile number online or on a social media site– entering numbers online can give permission to charge that number and can compromise privacy.
  4. Know which apps your child is downloading and how much they cost, including the cost of upgrades in free apps.
  5. Use www.phonebrain.org.uk – it’s an interactive website about safe and secure phone use for children and young people as well as parents.
  6. Contact your mobile network straight away if you get an unexpectedly high bill or if your child is accessing inappropriate services. If you are unsatisfied, contact PhonepayPlus on 0800 500 212 or at www.phonepayplus.org.uk.

Paul Whiteing, Chief Executive of PhonepayPlus commented on the plan saying:

“Connected devices will define the age in which today’s children live and we are determined to ensure that they can receive the benefits while being protected from the risks. Smartphones in children’s pockets can burn holes in parent’s wallets, so we are working with partners across industry and other agencies to prevent this. This is a real challenge for parents and for us as a regulator but this plan meets that challenge head on.”