Online gaming has seen a massive increase in popularity. In 2020, according to Ofcom, around seven in ten children aged 5-15 played games online.
Many experts agree that playing online games can offer physical and social benefits to children and young people. These include strategic thinking, creativity and problem solving skills, however, as with many aspects of their digital lives, there can be drawbacks. Spending money while gaming is an area of growing concern, particularly in games aimed at children and young people.
In recent years there has been a significant rise in games that offer in-game purchasing. Often these games do not cost anything to download and play initially, which can be appealing. However, in order to fund game development, players can pay to unlock content or features in the game.
Purchases usually range from low value ‘microtransactions’, such as an item that boosts performance, to high value, such as a bundle of currency or access to additional levels.
Purchases can also include skins (changing the appearance of the character you are playing with) and loot boxes, where there is the chance to win a virtual item of varying value.
Microtransactions will usually allow the player to advance more quickly and easily in the game. In some cases it is impossible to finish a game without paying for something and this can be frustrating.
Children and young people may also face pressure from friends, online gamers and influencers that lead them to want to spend money on the best items available.
Some games will also use psychological nudges to encourage players to buy loot boxes, which offers the chance to win an in-game item. Because there is luck involved as to which item the player will get, this can be seen as a gamble, which is particularly an issue in games that appeal to children and young people.
The way a game is designed can make it feel like you are not spending ‘real’ money and it can be easy for children and young people to rack up charges accidentally without their parent or carer’s consent, particularly if a debit or credit card is linked to the account.
Researching a game and understanding how it is monetised before you download it is a good place to start. Games with in-app purchases will typically be labelled as such on the App store’s rating system. Involving children and young people in this process may help them to understand how in-game purchases work and how to avoid unintentionally making them.
Key information on some of the most popular games, including age ratings and how to enable parental controls and security settings can be found in our In the Know section.
If your child is feeling pressured to keep up with their friends, it might be helpful to involve them in creating a family agreement about what is okay and not okay to do online. Childnet’s family agreement template is useful for helping you do this.
Taking an interest in their online lives in this way may help them to accept that different families will have different views about screen time, what games are appropriate and spending limits.
Views from the experts
Tim Mitchell, Content Director at GetSafeOnline
Tim discusses the benefits that gaming offers children and young people and the risks posed by in-game purchases.
Designed and created specifically with parents and carers in mind, this collection of guides equips you with the key information you should know about the most popular social media and gaming apps to help your child navigate their digital journey safely.