Freemium app

If you’ve ever handed a smartphone or tablet to a toddler who just wouldn’t quiet down or found yourself trying to regulate the amount of time your children spend online, you know that the digital lives of children are in equal measure a profound source of promise and peril.

While questions about screen time are a perennial favorite topic when it comes to children, and in no way trivial, there are some much darker issues that merit discussion, but seldom make it through the din that makes the digital world such a treacherous place for young people.

#7 “Freemium” Games or Apps and Loot Boxes

It starts innocently. A child sees a new game on an app store, or hears about it from a friend and decides to download it. Parents don’t mind because the game is free. After about an hour or so, the difficulty level of the game spikes and a popup informs your child that they can unlock a power-up for just a dollar or two. Or maybe they can unlock another level or character, or a virtual box full of things that make it easier and more fun to play the game.

Weeks later, the parents get billed for hundreds of dollars, the steady trickle of micro purchases accumulating into a torrent.

It’s by design. Software developers that make “free” games and apps are increasingly banking on revenue from in-app and in-game purchases. If the apps and games don’t include objectionable or violent content, they more often than not bypass parental controls, meaning a child who can install and get hooked on their product can start spending money like a drunken sailor with their parents none the wiser.

Children and adolescents are an ideal target market because they’re easily addicted to apps and games and don’t understand the value of money. Psychologists and neurologists say there’s a greater tendency toward impulsive behavior in adolescents, which may make it harder for them to resist the urge to keep playing and spending.

Of particular concern to parents and government officials is the gambling nature of “loot boxes,” where game add-ons provided at random produce a buzz similar to that of playing a slot machine.

What you can do about it: It may not be possible to fully lock down your child’s device, especially with an unruly teenager, but it is possible to make sure that their online in-app spending isn’t tied to your credit card. Consider setting up a separate account with a pre-paid balance for their apps and app purchases to rein in runaway spending.

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