Donegal Daily has teamed up with MABS, the State-funded Money Advice and Budgeting Service, to bring you a new monthly column which will offer advice and information on a range of money-related and budgeting topics.
In this second MABS Money Box column, Edel Mhic Amhlaidh will deal with online gaming and how to monitor and limit your children’s spending on this technology.
Edel Mhic Amhlaidh is a Dedicated Mortgage Arrears Adviser (DMA) with North Connacht & Ulster MABS. DMAs provide a high level of independent, expert advice on to people in difficulty with their mortgage arrears under the Abhaile Scheme
Online Video Games and Children: how to Control their Spending
Anyone with children of any age group in their homes knows that the struggle is real when it comes to limiting screen time, especially during the school holidays when they need to be entertained for longer periods of time. The past time of choice for many children and teenagers is playing video games.
Online gaming means you can play in real-time with people across the world through a computer, games console, tablet or smartphone connected to the internet. Online video games can offer children a world of adventure to immerse themselves in and during the Covid 19 pandemic, online gaming took on a whole new resonance, as children have the opportunity to play with their friends and others, who they are not seeing in person, virtually.
While gaming in moderation has its benefits, it can be an expensive hobby. It is important to understand the hidden and not so hidden costs of some of these games and how to keep your child’s online spend under control. Some parents only find out that their child has made purchases without their consent or knowledge, when they receive a bank statement or the direct debit for the mortgage or other bills has been declined. Sometimes this can involve not just one item, but a series of purchases or subscriptions. In this article I am going to examine the financial risks involved in online video games and how to limit these and protect your bank balance.
Alternatives to the latest devices & technology
Online video games require relatively complex hardware to participate in, along with a high-speed internet connection. This can create the perception that you need the most up to date technology for your child. However, 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 model devices can still access online video games.
- Apps such as Roblox can offer children access to games on lower-end devices
- Resist children’s demands 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 – these are called freemium games. Fortnite is an example of a free game making a lot 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 of varying value to the player. This can appear similar to gambling as there is luck involved as to which item the player will get. Also, some games like Rocket League have historically presented these items in a “fruit machine” style – spin to win.
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.
While Ireland does not have a gambling regulator, in the UK the Gambling Commission does not consider these micro transactions to be actual gambling because the items won have no monetary value outside the game. If it was considered gambling it could not be marketed to children. While some countries such as Belgium have banned these freemium games for this reason, here, games are now labelled as having in-app purchases as part of their rating system.
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. According to Dell Computers various symptoms can be associated with malware, so any one (or a combination) of the following symptoms could be good indicators of a malware infection.
- Browser Redirects, Popups, Homepage Changes: The browser may suddenly redirect to an unknown website, or a previously set home page may change without warning or input.
- Slow Computer Response: The computer may seem to “lock up” or run slow during regular use. It is also not uncommon to experience delays in the operating system loading to the desktop.
- Processor Utilization at 100% in Task Manager: The processor seems to be working overtime and/or slowly. To check the processor utilization or the kernel memory status, press the CTRL + ALT + DEL keys simultaneously. Then click the Performance tab. Processor utilization is indicated by the CPU Usage gauge.
- Virtual Memory Low Message: This message keeps appearing no matter what changes are made to resolve the issue.
To avoid un-intentionally downloading apps or free games that may be bundled with malware or spyware, it’s important to:
- Check and research apps and games that children plan to download
- Stick to legitimate websites when downloading any game
- Explain risks of downloading ‘free’ games and what to do if something goes wrong
- 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 making a purchase or granting your child permission to download it. Set spending limits.
Use parental controls
Set-up parental controls to limit access to any credit cards associated with online game accounts. Some gaming platforms specifically provide advice and support on setting up parental controls.
Set up email on device to flag purchases
Set-up your device or console with an email account you check regularly so that purchases are quickly flagged.
Use gift cards to make purchases rather than credit cards
Consider not associating your credit card with an account and instead, buying gift cards with pre-set credit, similar to book tokens.
Refunds for children “accidentally” buying items depends on the term & conditions of the gaming platform or game developer. Sometimes it is not possible to obtain a refund, even in cases where parental controls were set up incorrectly. Should you find yourself in a similar situation, please contact the game provider/platform to seek a refund based on the accidental purchase by your child.
You may have to speak to your own bank if the accidental purchases have resulted in your direct debit/standing order being declined, or if your current account went into a negative balance where you have no agreed overdraft facility set up.
Take an interest
For a lot of parents, the online world that children inhabit can seem like a mysterious place filled with danger and potential pitfalls. The gaming and app industries deliberately target children, teens and young adults through the games they play.
Unless you play the games yourself, you may not be aware of the actual game content or the nature of these advertising tactics. Try to familiarise yourself with the games your child plays, and try getting your child’s take on the game as well.
A great site to get a balanced viewpoint is www.commonsensemedia.org where you can search for any game or app to find in-depth reviews from both parents and children.
Parents should talk to their children about the costs of gaming in an age-appropriate manner, explaining that real money is spent on these games, even though it is packaged to look like part of the game. Take the opportunity to explain the value of money: that it needs to be earned. Perhaps there are chores around the house that could be done in exchange for some pocket money, which in turn could be put towards purchasing video games or making purchases in a game.
The Citizens Information Service provide comprehensive advice on all aspects of online safety.
For advice on any aspect of budgeting or spending, contact MABS – we are here to help
Call the MABS national Helpline on 0818 07 2000, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm. Money advisers are available and waiting to assist.
MABS is funded and supported by the Citizens Information Board.