How to help your kids be smarter with their smartphones

A British dad recently got an eight-thousand-dollar bill from his son's accidental gaming purchases. How can parents avoid being on the hook for these kinds of charges? A technology expert joins us to talk about smart rules, for kids smart phones.

Kids can be dumb with smartphones - MediaSmarts has a primer on Snapchat, Kik, Vaults and more

MediaSmarts, Matthew Johnson, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, Apple, Kik, vaults, kids, technology 7:49

A British dad recently got an $8,000 bill from his son's accidental gaming purchases. How can parents avoid being on the hook for these kinds of charges? Matthew Johnson, the director of education with the media literacy group MediaSmarts, has some advice for parents looking to help their kids be smarter with their smart phones and tablets.

The CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with Johnson. Listen to the full interview by clicking or tapping on the image at the top of this page, or read the edited and abridged transcript below.

Matthew Johnson, Director of Education with MediaSmarts

​Q. How can a child rack up an $8,000 bill playing a game?

They provide you with a basic version of the game or app but in order to access the full content you have to pay extra. You may be paying for an advantage over another person — a "power up." You may be paying to personalize your character or something else about the game, and you can pay to skip over the boring parts of the game. These have been created, cleverly, to manipulate you into paying as much and as often as possible.

We need to teach kids that there is real money involved. Also, we need to teach them to recognize how these games are manipulating them in the same way we teach them how to recognize they are being advertised to.

So this is a teaching opportunity for parents?

Absolutely. This is a teaching opportunity for media literacy, digital literacy and financial literacy. When you've got young kids playing, you want to put limits on their spending. In most cases, you can turn off in-app purchases. You can also have the purchases come from a gift card instead. That sets a limit. If they got a $40 gift card for Christmas, ask them to pay attention to how long it takes to use up that money. It can happen shockingly quickly. That can be a very valuable lesson. 

What ground rules should parents set when giving a smart phone to a kid?

It's very hard to directly supervise kids when they're using a mobile device. They probably shouldn't be using one until parents are confident the kid can use it in a responsible way. We need to start talking to them about these issues as soon as they start using the internet. Our research has shown there is a strong connection between rules in the home about online behaviour and how they actually behave.

It may feel what we're saying goes in one ear and out the other, particularly with teens and parents can feel out of their depth because it is so hard to keep track of these issues. But, if you set clear household rules about the kind of behaviour you expect... these rules do have a strong relationship with how kids actually behave.

Talking to them about their online behaviour can be more difficult if you are not familiar with the apps they're using. What apps are out there that parents should become familiar with?

Parents need to know that they don't have to be technical experts. One of the great things about kids' technical expertise is that when they are young, we can use their technical expertise. When they are young, they want to talk to us about the things they are doing online. They want to share experiences. 

All digital technologies come down to communicating, playing or sharing content. They're all just different ways of doing that. Sometimes the appeal of a new platform is that it's new — that parents aren't there yet. Kids do have strong concerns about privacy. They may view their privacy in a different way but the things that have come along in the last few years that have attracted them have helped them manage their privacy. Snapchat is a good example. It sends a social message that these things aren't to be saved and aren't to be taken seriously. 

The most recent examples are the vault apps that keep content private from unwanted eyes. That may be parents' eyes but may be peers' eyes as well. 

So understanding the technology is less important than starting an early dialogue about the technology with your children?

Absolutely. Of course it's a good idea to stay informed. We have tips on our website mediasmarts.ca. It includes a list of questions to ask your child when they ask to start a new social network account. You can ask those about any new technology they want to use to help you understand why they want to use it and what the concerns are.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?