Tips to prevent your kids from using your credit card for video games

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Trish Gilbert didn’t realize how much money her two sons spent on digital goods in “Fortnite” during the pandemic until she looked at her credit card statements from last year to prepare for taxes. The total for 2020 came in at $955.

β€œI thought, ‘How did this happen?’” said Ms. Gilbert, a product and marketing consultant in Mountain View, California. “I thought we had an agreement with our boys that if they wanted to buy something, they’ll ask us. Obviously there have been a number of times when the boys decided to buy something and didn’t come to Mom and Dad.”

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Ms Gilbert said that in the chaos of pandemic life, she and her husband became lax in controlling their boys’ spending. They have not enabled any controls on their PlayStation 4 game consoles that would have prevented unapproved charges. Their 10- and 12-year-old sons used their parents’ credit card to purchase V-Bucks, the “Fortnite” currency used to purchase skins and other items for their avatars.

A printout of in-game purchases Trish Gilbert’s sons have made over the past year.

The kids didn’t even realize it themselves. During a family conversation, they suspected that they had spent between $200 and $300 on games. While the conversation was helpful, Ms. Gilbert said, “We’ve changed the account settings to ‘require password at checkout’.”

Children were already spend a lot of money on digital goods before the pandemic. But with all the extra time kids spent on devices at home during the shutdown, those dollar amounts increased. In-game purchases on mobile devices, PCs and game consoles totaled approximately $100 billion worldwide last year, an increase of nearly 18% from 2019, according to Michael Pachter, director of equity research at Wedbush Securities.

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Many parents have found that their children have incurred huge costs for Robux, the in-game currency of the Roblox gaming platform. Anya Sarre said she found that her 8-year-old son had spent a lot more money in the game than she’d realized when her tax adviser asked about all of Roblox’s charges. Ms Sarre said her son always asked permission and she approved the charges without realizing how much was added. She said she didn’t count an exact amount, but it’s in the thousands of dollars.

“It got to the point where he was going to get a new avatar, and he needed another and another,” said Ms. Sarre, a style expert in Los Angeles. β€œIt seemed so innocent because it’s $4.99 here and $7.99 there. It’s just right.”

Spending on Roblox for kids came as a shock to so many parents during the pandemic, when his popularity exploded, that Parents Together, a non-profit family advocacy group, it warned its 2.5 million members.

Roblox offers a number of ways to monitor spending on its platform, which I’ll explain below. A spokeswoman said the company continues to consider additional features for parents and players to manage purchases.

What you can do

Many parents I spoke to said they are now grappling with guilt and shame about easing their gaming limits and supervision during the pandemic, and wonder how they can cut back on spending.

Some will subside on their own. Ms Gilbert said she noticed a decline in spending in March after her sons returned to school and resumed sports. Mr Pachter said he expects in-game spending growth to slow to pre-pandemic annual levels of about 7% to 10%.

But parents can do a lot to keep kids from making unauthorized purchases through app stores, game consoles, or the video games themselves.

Brady Gilbert says he plays “MLB The Show 21” every day and also plays baseball regularly, just like his younger brother.

Apple App Store. To prevent children from making unauthorized purchases of games purchased through the Apple App Store, parents should can set a passcode from the Family Screen Time setting on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. When kids have their own devices, you can set up Family Sharing and then enable Ask to buy. You will receive a notification every time your child wants to buy a new game or make an in-game purchase; you just tap “decline” or “approve”. You can also choose not to allow in-app purchases at all, through the Screen Time settings on your or your child’s device.

Google Play. Apps and games in the Family section of Google Play automatically ask for authentication before you can make purchases; in games and apps outside the Family section, parents can enable authentication. If you use your Google Account on more than one device, or use multiple accounts on one device, you must enable authentication on each device or account. You can also use Google’s Family Link app to manage in-app purchases for kids on Chromebooks and select Android devices. The app works too on iOS so parents with iPhones can track their kids’ Google devices.

Microsoft Store. If your child is playing on a Windows 10 device or an Xbox console, you can create a family account and require children to get your approval for anything they want to buy in the Microsoft Store. You can also set a fee to limit purchases.

Xbox. Parents can manage in-game expenses through the family settings on Xbox consoles. Xbox also has a family settings app that allows parents to control all their children’s play activities from their phone. If you activate Ask to Buy, you’ll get an in-app notification if kids want to make an in-app purchase and there’s not enough funds in their account parents can then decide if they want to add more money.

Nintendo.

Nintendo

does not allow payment information to be stored on accounts for persons under the age of 18. The Nintendo Switch has a parental control app that allows families to manage spending. Parents can also restrict purchases by creating a Nintendo Account family group.

Play station. To set parental controls on the PS4 or PS5 you will need your own PlayStation Network account, as well as an account for each child. After you create those accounts, you can set monthly spending limits for each child’s account. In front of families who have the older PS3 model, similar settings can limit spending.

And you can do what Mrs Gilbert finally did and need a password to enter at checkout.

Roblox. If your child is logged into Roblox through a web browser instead of an app, the spend will be different. The site does not store your credit card information, so you have to enter a card every time you buy Robux. The company uses a credit card verification system, so a small (eventually refunded) fee may be charged to confirm that you are the authorized user of the card.

Fortnite. Parents can create a six-digit PIN on the Epic Games website, which must be entered before making purchases from the Epic Games Store. The PIN can be created through the parental control settings. Keep in mind that if kids play Roblox or “Fortnite” somewhere other than the website, the payment arrangements will depend on the app store or game console settings I described above.

Write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon@wsj.com

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