How my 5-year-old racked up a $756 iTunes bill - in one day

Parents needs to enforce screen time limits if they want kids to develop healthy technology habits.
ANATOLIY BABIY/123RF

Parents needs to enforce screen time limits if they want kids to develop healthy technology habits.

I stared at the receipts from iTunes in disbelief. They totalled $756.19. In one day.

Every now and then, my spend is a little higher than I'd remembered – a song here, an app there. But this was on another level. Someone had bought hundreds of thousands of in-app credits for a fashion store app. My five-year-old daughter's favourite.

I opened it up on the iPad and there was the answer. My fledgling mogul's sparsely furnished little virtual store had transformed into the sort of megamall Frank Lowy can only dream about. It had kittens, a turtle pond, cherry blossom trees, a mariachi band and Justin Bieber. It was so replete with fabulous things that the little animated customers couldn't fit in, and were circling around it endlessly, sometimes bouncing off the heavily embellished front entrance.

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All this my daughter had paid for with the app's 'gold coins and gems' and to buy those, she'd breached my main password, iTunes password and the four-digit code to access and change the iPad's Restrictions in Settings. She was resourceful but as I've since learned, not much more so than most tech-savvy juniors.

Once I'd sent a mortified plea for clemency to iTunes Store Customer Support, I discovered these 'app-cidents' are almost a rite of passage in the digitalised world.

Every parent I spoke to had a similar story. Other shockers included child-generated bills of $1677 (Smurfberries) and $2,097 (My Little Pony Strawberries). None of these rogue splurges totalled less than three figures.

Some make headlines, like UK seven-year-old Faisall Shugaa, who racked up around $8,389 in 2015 on Jurassic World Dino Bucks.  Around the same time, Kanye West ranted on Twitter about the phenomenon. "That makes no sense!" said Yeezus. "We give the iPad to our child and every 5 minutes there's a new purchase!"

To their credit (literally), iTunes handles these situations graciously. Everyone I spoke to had received a full, swift refund, as did I, along with a list of resources for tightening iTunes security. 

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In all fairness, there's only so much they can do. The real problem is that our kids are adept with tech in a way our generation never was – and that many of us still struggle to grasp. And they learn at lightning speed.

Kristy Goodwin is an early child development expert as well as author, researcher and educator on parenting in the digital age.

Such is the modern parent's need for guidance through the digital jungle, she's designed seminars and an online course, Appy Kids, Appy Parents.

"Kids often surpass parents' technical skills," she says. "They've learnt to tap, swipe and pinch before they've learnt to ride a bike, grip a pencil or tie their shoelaces. The technology is growing exponentially so digital dilemmas are compounded because parents need to constantly update their own skills."

CHILDPROOFING TOOLS

Effective tools exist for managing your child's digital activity. You just need to know where to find them.

Both Goodwin and iTunes strongly recommend parents activate iTunes' Family Sharing, which allows up to six family members to share an account for all their iTunes, iBooks and app purchases. One person pays, but that person may also set up the Ask to Buy feature, giving them final veto on all purchases.

Goodwin also recommends web filtering software to ensure kids are safe online. Popular and free parental control software includes Kidlogger and Qustodio, while Goodwin's own Family Zone has a raft of safeguards including feature restrictions and screen time management for a nominal monthly fee.

Guided Access is another helpful feature that allows you to restrict all activity on a device to just one app, and even disable some functions within that app.

HEALTHY DIGITAL KIDS

It's not all scary. Science shows numerous educational benefits of digital devices and apps, says Goodwin.

"Research tells us that if well-developed apps are used intentionally and in developmentally-appropriate ways, then children can certainly benefit from using touch screens."

These benefits, she says, include allowing choice, interactive learning, fast access to information and feedback, greater creativity and a flexibility of use that's often more accessible and supportive than traditional pen and paper for children with different learning needs.

Here are her tips for maximising the good stuff:

SET A LOCKOUT TIME

"I strongly encourage parents to establish and enforce screen time limits if they want kids to develop healthy technology habits. I recommend using the generic clock app on their device, set the agreed time limit on the Timer function - and under its sound effects, tucked away at the very bottom, is the option Stop Playing, that will lock the device after the elapsed period of time."

PICK YOUR TIMING

Goodwin recommends restricting screen time to certain times of the day, and avoiding use around nap or bedtime, "as blue light from tablets and smartphones can impede the body's production of melatonin which can cause sleep delays," she says. 

TREAT IT RIGHT

Avoid using devices as rewards or bribes, says Goodwin. "We want our kids to see technology as a tool and not a toy. If it's used in a functional way, rather than a reward, they're more likely to develop healthy relationships with technology."

GET OUTDOORS

"Balance kids' screen time and green time. Outdoor, unstructured play and time in nature is critical for kids' healthy development."

 - essentialkids.com.au

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