kid with ipad inapp purchases

Image via flickringbrad on Flickr Creative Commons

Horror stories of children making in-app purchases totaling thousands of dollars are prevalent. Also prevalent are the extreme feelings of those who report these stories.

The majority of articles I’ve read on the topic have the same objective of assigning blame; and that is simply unhelpful. It moves us at best, only marginally closer to a solution, while creating deep divisions that will take time to bridge.

Even the more moderate pieces I’ve found fall into this blame allocation trap. Consider the title of Lisa Belkin’s piece on the recent class action suit against Apple:

Whose Fault Is It If Your Child Spends $2,000 On A ‘Free’ Online Game?

There are only four parties that could potentially be responsible; the parent, Apple, the developer and the child.

Blaming a parent for a momentary lapse in otherwise near-constant vigilance is not useful.  Such finger pointing is patently silly given the novel nature of the digital landscape that no other human parents have ever encountered before.

It’s equally silly to blame Apple and developers (save those cases of willful deception) for running businesses that clearly appeal to consumers. You don’t spend $2000 on something you hate.

And it doesn’t strike me as useful to waste space on exonerating the child.

Blame allocation simply doesn’t help solve the problem. In order to develop proactive solutions we must develop a more nuanced, less sniping understanding.

Don’t forget that in the world of mobile devices and tablets, we’re all novices.

Baby on iPad

Image via Henriksent on Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that we are living in uncharted technological territory. The ubiquity of smart phones and tablets gives the false impression that we understand the profound ways these powerful devices have changed our lives.

While tablets and mobile devices are now relatively common we have to remember that the majority of American’s still don’t own either. Consumers are new to the mobile and tablet platforms and so are the companies that manufacture them.

While smart phone adoption has been accelerating, only 50% of Americans had smartphones in January 2012.  Only 1 in 5 Americans now own a tablet computer.

It takes children 5 to 6 years to develop the skills necessary to ride a bicycle, a rather simple machine. The iPhone was released in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. Therefore, our relative skill level on the bicycle timeline would land us atop a big wheel or anxiously unwrapping a new bike with training wheels.  We should expect some scrapped knees along the way and pick each other up when we fall.

Consumers and Most Tech Companies Have Vastly Different Incentives.

Kids on iPad Inapp Purchases

Image via flickringbrad on Flickr Creative Commons

It’s a long road for an Apple app to end up in front of your child. The app must first be conceived, designed, and built by a developer. The developer, after incurring all of the financial risk to build the app must then submit it to Apple for approval.

Both the developers and Apple are businesses attempting to maximize their profit. Therefore, there’s a powerful incentive for both the developer and Apple to adopt practices which maximize revenue.  To date, this has included in-app purchases.

The consumer, on the other hand, wants the highest value for their money.  But value to a consumer of children’s apps isn’t simply monetary. The consumer’s consideration set will include concerns such as the educational value, cost, the presence of objectionable content, and entertainment value – and these are just some of the parent’s concerns.

Kid’s are entertainment seekers, pure and simple, and app makers and sellers market directly to children.

So, I see in-app purchases as the nearly inevitable byproduct of contradictory incentives.  It’s not surprising that in app purchases have been a source of friction.

The Solution: Align Consumer, Developer, and App Store Incentives.

Parents desire a digital environment where they can be confident that their children cannot access objectionable material or accidentally make exorbitant purchases.

Developers want access to children’s attention, and they gain it by making a child desire their product.

App stores like iTunes want to sell as many apps as possible.

Famigo is here to align these incentives and make the digital marketplace a much friendlier place for families.

We’re busy developing the Famigo Sandbox for Apple devices. Like the Android version, the Sandbox provides a safe place for children to experience digital content free from in-app purchases (and without the ability to access email, phone, the web, etc.). The Wishlist feature allows children to make a list of apps they would like, but purchases can only be made by parents.  And to facilitate these purchasing decisions, Famigo reviews and recommends the best digital content available.

This way, each party is satisfied.  Apple and developers sell more apps and can target their marketing efforts, while parents can rest assured that their children and their wallets are safe.


Matthew McDonnell is currently pursuing his J.D. at the University of Texas Law School, having already earned his MBA at the College of Charleston. With a varied past as an elementary teacher, a sailing instructor, and a long time student, Matthew is now Famigo’s trusted privacy expert (and a genuinely excellent dude).

Matt McDonnell (40 Posts)

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