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Sunday Times / Netmums survey findings on children buying in-game extras on tablets and consoles

27 August 2014

This week, the Sunday Times reported a survey of 1,300 parents by Netmums which found that 21% of respondents had faced large bills after a child bought game extras. It also found that 96% thought companies should make it more difficult for children to spend their parents’ money.

As the UK’s regulator for premium rate services, including in-app purchases that are charged to a phone bill, PhonepayPlus has a strong interest in this area. Some 80% of complaints we receive relating to non-adult downloadable contents such as apps and games are linked to minors. In complaints involving minors more generally, the average consumer spend was £50 – more than double that across all complaints.

A key issue in our work is the phenomenon of ‘bill shock’, when consumers receive large and unexpected charges and we are working to educate consumers so that they avoid that happening, particularly as three in ten children aged five to 15 years-old now own a smartphone.

We take a three-pronged approach to tackling these challenges: of consumer education, working with the industry, and research into developing matters.

Parents and children can find more advice on our PhoneBrain website which advises kids that buying or earning coins, credits or other currencies for their favourite games and apps can sometimes get them to sign up to things that they do not intend to and in some cases, cost money on their phone. PhonepayPlus provides a range of other advice as well.

PhonepayPlus works with the industry we regulate to pre-empt problems and we take an outcomes-based approach to regulation, maintaining consumer protection while allowing for innovation. Earlier this year, we launched a 12 month pilot scheme to regulate app store purchases that are charged to consumers’ phone bills, with Google Play Store the first participant. It means that people of all ages who buy digital content, charged to their phone bill are protected under PhonepayPlus’ Code of Practice.

We strive to commission and keep abreast of the latest research to inform our work, particularly around vulnerable consumers such as children. Our Children as Connected Consumers report investigates these issues in detail and has informed the work of other regulators such as the OFT/CMA. More on our work with children in mind can be found in our newly published Annual Report for 2013/14.