Computer-savvy youths fall prey to app makers

Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

I rue the day my kids connected with high tech. I know the ubiquitous pods, pads, and do-everything phones are here to stay. But I hate how they’ve commandeered the young.

Addiction to sophisticated digital devices does a number on vulnerable youth — and I’m not talking late teens. Grade school kids have iPhones.

By middle school, they’re texting, playing, chatting, posing. They enter high school attached to the equipment they always carry.

They don’t converse. They start with “hey” and abbreviate. It’s a whole new world.

But kids are still kids. They want to belong, listen to songs on iTunes, play popular games on mobile applications.

They’re insecure, immature, gullible. They’re prime targets for commercial exploitation. Apple has made a killing on touch-screen kids who tap faster than they think.

I have first-hand experience with this 21st century phenomenon. Children barely into double-digit ages unknowingly and knowingly become big Apple spenders.

Their parents suspect little until their credit-card accounts reveal much. They see charge after charge for things they never bought.

Suddenly, they owe the iTunes Store lots of money for games they never played. The culprit is a member of the household, a game player gone wild.

Turns out Junior went on a buying spree between book reports. Kids get hopelessly hooked on games called Clash of Clans, Fruit Ninja, Minecraft, and Subway Surfers.

Slick software developers coax players to go the distance. Players are reeled in by games that are free to download and play, but require purchases to advance to the next level.

Addicted adolescent gamers have to buy whatever gem or coin or special power is necessary to keep playing. Like adults with a gambling problem, pubescent gamblers can’t stop.

Unlike adults, many young people don’t know better. They get in way over their head at Mommy and Daddy’s expense.

Apple makes it simple to feed their habit. All it takes is a credit card and a password to open an account.

A digital bonanza of games awaits. So does the opportunity to run up bills of hundreds of dollars for kid-focused apps.

Youthful gamers tell me that racking up a boatload of charges from the Apple App Store is easy. Enter an Apple ID, peruse the apps, press buy when applicable.

Done. Parental consent or knowledge is not a prerequisite. Generally, kids can’t get away with using a parent’s credit card so easily at, say, a Lowe’s or a Macy’s store.

But app purchases on an iPod, iPad, or iPhone don’t come with the same scrutiny or consumer safeguards. It took tens of thousands of hyperventilating parents who challenged unauthorized credit card purchases by their children to force the government to respond.

“You cannot charge consumers for purchases they did not authorize,” Federal Trade Commission Chairman Edith Ramirez said last week in announcing an agreement with Apple on app purchases. Under terms of the deal, Apple said it would refund a minimum of $32.5 million for unauthorized charges.

It agreed to modify its billing system for mobile apps to ensure that “express, informed consent” is obtained from consumers before they are charged. Apple settled a class-action lawsuit over the same issue last year, but the problem persisted.

So the FTC has demanded more from Apple, “more robust” disclosure about billing practices, more consumer redress. Apple declared that “protecting children has been a priority for the App Store” and that the FTC settlement merely “extends our existing refund program for in-app purchases which may have been made without a parent’s permission.”

I am not reassured. As a parent of kids who were born computer-savvy, I know my ability to oversee their activities is a poor match for their talent to navigate in and around high tech.

Kids are being played for all their commercial worth. I rue the consuming influence of the digital age on young people, especially children under 13, whose judgment is still a work in process.

Parents can limit and block exposure to the online devices their children use. But they’re often unaware when software developers and their company make a mint on every children’s app they sell.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

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