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Have You Checked The Price On Smurfberries Lately?


If you have a portable Apple device, there's a good chance you have handed it to your child at some point to keep them entertained. The iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch have an incredible selection of games and other pastimes that are suitable for kids. (And I should also mention that Apple's App Store is still pornography-free, thanks to a major "housecleaning" last year.)

However there is a little catch in this land of tap, tap, tap utopia. Some apps on these devices allow what is called "in app purchases." These can be very convenient in the right scenario. For example, I have a GPS app that requires an annual subscription. With a couple of taps, I can renew and activate my subscription from within the app itself. It's the ultimate in convenience, and a very good design.

But what isn't good is when this same function is included in a game made for children. One such little pastime that received media attention in December 2010 is a game called The Smurfs' Village. This backseat diversion features those little blue gnomes that are featured in an upcoming movie and were popular when I was a kid. However, what brought this little game in the land of blue to the forefront was when kids began buying "smurfberries" during their visits. These berries are like monetary tokens within the game, and help the player achieve his or her goals more quickly.

In December, Kelly Rummelhart from Gridley, CA was one of the parents who brought the issue to light. She reported her four-year-old racked up $66.88 buying bushels of smurfberries. Even worse was the news a couple of weeks ago from Holly Jones, a New Zealand 10-year-old who inadvertently spent $275 on her parents' credit card when she bought not a bushel but a wagon full of smurfberries. Holly felt she was using "play money," however once she realized her error, she took it upon herself to write to a New Zealand media outlet to help spread the words to other kids.

"I feel it is confusing for children," wrote Holly. "Because in most of the games you use play money that you have earned during the game to buy things (not real money which is charged straight to a credit card)." With her single decade of wisdom and critical thinking skills, she also added that she felt it strange that games with Smurf characters, which obviously appeal to young children, would even include such an option.

I couldn't agree more. It's a nasty trap, and I feel for Holly and the many other children who have sent their parents running to find a way out of this mess of rotten berries. Thankfully as the charges run through the Apple iTunes Store, all of the incidents I have read about in the media have acknowledged that Apple has refunded their money, but I'm certain there are many other parents who either have not noticed the charges or can't be bothered to spend the time required to secure a refund.

Both Apple and the developers of these games (The Smurfs' Village isn't the only one -- other games for children offer similar purchase opportunities) stand behind the purchasing system, although some minor changes have been made. Game developers are now adding specific warnings telling you that you are about to spend real money -- a dubious effort considering the reading abilities of a four-year-old. And these young players should be challenged with needing to enter their parent's password for the iTunes store prior to making the purchase. But that's where the system can break down. Apple has the store engineered so that if you make a purchase or enter your password for any other reason, it opens up all other transactions for another 15 minutes. So if mom or dad downloads the "free" Smurf game on their iPad, and then hands it to their child, there is a good chance more purchases will be made. And from my own tests, it appears each time a transaction takes place, it resets that 15 minute clock.

The real solution? If you have a young child who frequently uses your device, you should disable in app purchases. To do this, open the control panel, tap "General", then "Restrictions," and then look for the setting towards the bottom of the list that says "In-App Purchases" and set this to "OFF". Of course this means when you want to purchase something within an app, you will need to come back into these settings and turn this function back "ON".

Finally, for you Google Android phone owners, don't smugly think this isn't your problem. Google has announced they will be adding in-app purchases to their cell phones in the first quarter of 2011. Even worse, in my opinion, is these charges from Android devices will appear on your phone bill. I don't know about you, but I'm far more likely to pick through charges on my credit card account than on my cell phone statement.

And while we're talking about Google, you can get a glimpse into why in-app purchases are such a big deal in this article. Google wants to make the same huge sum of money Apple has been enjoying from selling apps for their devices. Every app purchase and in-app purchase puts dollars in these company's pockets, so they have good motivation to encourage consumers to tap, tap, tap and spend, spend, spend.

All this means parents need to make sure their pocket toys are properly secured from unexpected berry buys, along with filtering for inappropriate Internet content and all the other thorny things that often makes technology incompatible with the curiosity of a child.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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