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The Apple App Store: Dangerous for Kids?

Capcom is generating nasty news because one of its games, Smurfs' Village, has children spending exorbitant amounts on in-app purchases without their parents' knowledge -- including one 8-year-old putting $1,400 worth of virtual Smurfberries (or whathaveyou) on her mom's credit card. Now Apple (APPL) has reportedly pulled Capcom aside to do something about this PR fiasco, but that's just a bunch of bullsmurf: From the lack of password requirements to make purchases to the missing parental controls, it's easy for kids to run up serious bills in the Apple App Store. It's up to Apple, not the third-party companies, to do something about it.

Easy for Kids to Make App Purchases without Parental Approval

The Apple App Store saves your credit card information and will have you confirm a purchase via a pop-up notice. In-app purchases, or those extra items bought within the title, are how many childrens' apps make money: They are free to download, but sell items inside the free app. As described in The Washington Post,

The in-app purchases have also catapulted children's games such as Smurfs' Village and Tap Zoo, by San Francisco-based Pocket Gems, into the ranks of the highest-grossing apps on iPods, iPhones and iPads.

But the practice is troubling parents and public interest groups, who say $99 for a wagon of Smurfberries or $19 for a bucket of snowflakes doesn't have any business in a children's game. Though a password is needed to make a purchase, critics say that the safeguards aren't strong enough and that there are loopholes.

There is a simple solution to this problem: Send a notification to parents before an in-app purchase is put through. For instance, the parent of the Smurfberry girl reportedly didn't know about the $1,400 bill until after it had be cleared by her credit card company and she received an email receipt from Apple. If Apple is concerned about this issue, it should allow an email or phone text notification to be sent to the parent when certain apps are being used, such as Smurfs' Village. If it is cool, the parent can sign off on it.

Apple hasn't applied parental notifications to any iTunes purchases, including music, but kids are more likely to buy a $99 wagon of Smurfberries than, say, a $199 Miles Davis box set on iTunes. In other words, Apple needs to support additional notifications to the products, like Smurfs' Village, that are aimed specifically at kids.

"Porn-Free" Apple

Apple hasn't tried to protect kids because it was arrogant enough to believe it created a squeaky clean environment. A year ago Apple declared it would scrub all adult content from the App Store. It created no parental controls since, if there was no adult content, they wouldn't be necessary. In Steve Jobs' words, "Folks who want porn can buy [an] Android phone."
Apple has since taken a capricious stance on "adult" entertainment, allowing a Victoria's Secret app, then banning the gay equivalent next, and going as far as removing nudity from classic works like James Joyce's Ulysses.

Ironically, despite all the moral judgments, kids are as vulnerable on the Apple App Store as ever. When a purchase is made, parental controls consist of a single message saying that the app is intended for people 18 and up. That will deter many a teenager!

It's not clear what happened in the discussion between Apple and Capcom this week, but Apple will have to take some responsibility and action if it intends to prevent another child sob story in the future.

Photo courtesy of juliejordanscott // CC 2.0

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