Online video games and children: How to control their spending

When it comes to entertaining children of any age, particularly during the school holidays, the pastime of choice for many children and teenagers is playing video games. 

Online gaming allows people to play in real-time with like-minded individuals across the world through a computer, games console, tablet or smartphone connected to the internet. 

It offers a word of adventure for children to immerse themselves in and was a great way for them to connect with their friends during the Covid_19 pandemic. 

However, while gaming in moderation has it’s benefits, it can be an expensive hobby and it’s important that you understand the hidden and not-so-hidden costs of some of those games. 

Some parents only find out that their child has made purchases without their consent or knowledge when they receive a bank statement or a bill/mortgage repayment has been declined. 

Thankfully, there are several things you can do to protect your bank account and control your child’s online spending.

Use alternatives to the latest devices and technology

Despite what the marketing might want you to believe, there are a wide range of ways that your child can play video games online without breaking the bank:

  • Use tablet devices and older smartphones. Many older models can still access online video games.
  • Apps such as Roblox can offer children access to games on lower-end devices
  • Resist children’s demand to constantly upgrade to the latest model

In-game and in-app purchases and freemium games

Other costs that parents should be aware of are those that crop up after the initial purchase or download of the game.

An increasingly popular way to fund game development is to offer games for free but then charge for content or characters in the game – there are called freemium games. 

Fortnite is an example of a free game making a lot of money from its in-game purchases known as micro transactions that unlock new outfits and dances. In some instances, these transactions (sometimes called ‘loot boxes’) offer a chance to win an in-game item which can appear similar to gambling. 

Virtual game currencies include names like V-Books, Cherries, Doughnuts and Coins. These currencies are purchased with real money for the player to buy items within the game. Children, who want more in-game currency to purchase loot boxes, are sometimes targeted by unofficial third-party apps offering currency in exchange for information. 

It’s important that parents get an understanding of how these games operate, educate children on the risks of sharing data and making in-app purchases and ensure appropriate passwords are set on credit card details. 

Risk of malware on free-to-download games

Malware has become the name for any type of malicious software such as spyware, adware or viruses that harm your computer’s performance or security. Most malware infections stem from internet activity which include downloading files or even browsing internet sites. Any one of the following symptoms could be good indicators of a malware infection: 

  • Browser Redirects, Popups, Homepage Changes
  • Slow Computer Response
  • Processor Utilization at 100% in Task Manager
  • Virtual Memory Low Message

To avoid unintentionally downloading apps or free games that may be bundled with malware or spyware, it’s important to: 

  1. Check and research apps and games that children plan to download
  2. Stick to legitimate websites when downloading any game
  3. Explain risks of downloading ‘free’ games and what to do if something goes wrong
  4. Set online boundaries and agree which websites and apps are best for them to use

Other tips for controlling video game costs

Review ongoing gaming costs – Consider the ongoing costs of playing a game before granting your child permission to download it. Set spending limits. 

Use parental controls – These will limit access to any credit cards associated wtih online game accounts. Some gaming platforms specifically provide advice and support on setting up parental controls. 

Set up an email on device to flag purchases – This will keep you notified of every purchase made.

Use gift cards to make purchases rather than credit cards – Consider not associating your credit card with an account at all and instead buy gift cards with pre-set credit. 

Refunds – It’s not always possible to get a refund for children who ‘accidentally’ buy items on gaming sites. Should you find yourself in a similar situation, contact the gaming provider or speak to your bank. 

Take an interest – Try to familiarise yourself with the games your child plays and talk to them about the costs of gaming in an age-appropriate manner.

Take the opportunity to talk about the value of money – perhaps they could do chores around the house in exchange for pocket money which can be spent on video games. 

This article was created by MABS, the State-funded Money Advice and Budgeting Service and was adapted with permission for the ISPCC Digital Ready Hub. You can read the full article here.

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