"App Anxiety: How to Protect Your iPad "… (and Bank Account)  from In-App Purchases and “Free Apps”

Imagine this: Your child is enjoying some iPad playtime while you enjoy the silence it brings. But as you cook dinner uninterrupted, your child (whom you have allowed to play a “free,” educational app that you approved ahead of time) is happily buying add-ons and extras for his game as your bank account is being depleted one purchase at a time. By the time dinner is on the table and the iPad has been put away, the bill your little gamer has accrued has cost you a hefty sum of your paycheck, and you were none the wiser. If you’re thinking this sounds unlikely, think again. It happens more often than you might think and sometimes to the tune of hundreds if not thousands of dollars (like this recent story about a five-year-old who racked up $2,500 worth of charges in a matter of minutes!). In fact, Apple has recently agreed to pay out millions to parents who have had this happen to them via a child buying in-app purchases without their knowledge and consent—a true testament to the problem that this has become.

If this real-life (horror) story has you considering stowing your family’s iPad under lock and key so that your wallet doesn’t suffer at the tiny hands of your own kids, don’t act so fast, says Jinny Gudmundsen, author of the new book iPad Apps For Kids For Dummies® (Wiley, 2013, ISBN: 978-1-1184-3307-2, $19.99). As the respected USA TODAY Kid-Tech columnist, Jinny understands the iPad and says that there are simple ways for parents to prevent this from happening so that they can relax and the whole family can still enjoy their iPad playing privileges. “These stories don’t have to be part of your own reality,” she explains. “In fact, the preventive measures that parents can take are fairly simple. Parents needn’t be afraid of this exciting technology. They just need to prepare it for kids’ use.”

In addition to highlighting 225 of the top iPad apps for kids (sorted into 26 chapters so that parents can find safe, fun, and fabulous apps), Gudmundsen also dedicates an entire chapter in her new book to explaining how to tweak the settings of your iPad to make your device kid-friendly. By following her advice, families need not fear the dreaded “in-app purchase” surprise on their next credit card statement.

If you’re ready to rest easier the next time you hand over the iPad to your youngster, read on for step-by-step instructions from the guru herself to learn how to make your iPad safe from inadvertent in-app purchases by your kids:

1. Locate the “Settings” icon on your screen. This button allows you to set up some parental controls on your iPad—including prohibiting in-app purchases.

2. From inside of “Settings,” select “General.”

3. From inside of “General,” navigate to “Restrictions” and turn them “On.” The default position for an iPad is to have the “Restrictions” turned off, so it is important to find this setting and change it.

4. Once “Restrictions” are turned on, you must “Enable Restrictions.” As soon as you do this, a pop-up appears asking you to create a four-digit passcode. You will need to enter it twice WITHOUT your child seeing the code.

5. Once inside the “Restrictions” area—think of them as Parental Controls—scroll down the page until you see “In-App Purchases.” Turn that setting from its default setting of “On” to “Off.” Viola! Your child can no longer make in-app purchases. That doesn’t mean they won’t be asked—the app will still ask—but they won’t be able to buy.

6. Another option is to allow the “In-App Purchases” to stay on, but then set the “Require Password” option under the “In-App Purchases” to be set to “Immediately.” If you don’t, the other option of “15 minutes” activates. This means that if you allow an in-app purchase by putting in your passcode, your child can buy as many things as they can for 15 minutes before you would be required to enter your passcode again.

As an additional precaution, Gudmundsen also urges parents to be wary of “free” apps. “The adage ‘nothing in life is free’ applies here,” she warns. “If a publisher offers an app for free, the app is probably still making money for the publisher somehow.” In fact, she goes on to explain, the way that these “freemium” apps make money is by enticing players to spend money on things that are special inside of the game—and frequently they are things that players need in order to make the game move forward at a normal pace.

“In-app purchases are frequently confusing to kids who have difficulty distinguishing between buying things with in-game currency and buying them with real money,” explains Gudmundsen. She goes on to describe another common model used where a free app is monetized by placing ads inside it. Other free apps, she says, are only a “lite” version of the real thing, or require the player to buy things inside the game. Gudmundsen urges parents to evaluate any free apps they download to make sure they’re appropriate before letting kids play. “Play them yourself before you ever let your kids check them out,” she recommends. “That way you can see what kind of pitfalls kids could run into before they have the chance to get into trouble.”

And while there is plenty for parents to be wary about in the wide world of apps, Gudmundsen says that there are instances in which a free app is exactly what it says it is—free. “The few exceptions to this rule are apps developed by nonprofit organizations and foundations—such as Alien Assignment, created by the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College, and good, free apps intended as advertisements for another product, such as LEGO Creationary,” she adds. “The lesson for parents here is simple: Like anything else when it comes to your kids, you should use caution and care when handing over the iPad. With a little preparation and attention, the iPad can be a great tool your whole family will enjoy. And it doesn’t have to drain your bank account to do it.”

Jinny Gudmundsen is the author of iPad Apps For Kids For Dummies®. She is the Kid-Tech columnist for USA TODAY and the Gannett newspaper chain. An authority on technology for kids, she also works for Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading nonprofit source of reviews on children’s media, and is the editor of ComputingWithKids.com .