kidThe legal and ethical implications of marketing to children is hardly a current topic, but thanks to smartphone games it has reared its head once again. Reading the business pages last week I was greeted with the news that the Office of Fair Trading have launched an investigation into whether children are being manipulated into buying pricey add-ons.

The area of concern is what developers call the ‘freemium’ market, games which are free to download but then offer extra content, for a price. This market has grown as smartphone ownership has increased among children, at the time of writing around a quarter of school age children own one.

Computer games are notoriously addictive. It has been a few years since Farmville was first let loose among Facebook users. This rather simple game had people tending to their crops online, in order to make money, to buy better equipment, to grow their farm, and make more money. Some equipment could only be bought with a credit card, or by inviting your friends to try the game. The scores of invites received from educated thirty-somethings suggest that it’s not just children that are vulnerable.

The Farmville app was axed last year, however, looking through the app market, there are many games which appear similar in nature. Badged as ‘Free’, these games are far more accessible for children, and do not require a credit card, instead choosing to add any costs onto the phone bill.

Parents opening the bill may be quick to point the finger at the developers, but where does the responsibility lie? This is an old debate that has carried on since adverts first appeared on children’s TV. Claims that marketing practices manipulate children are countered by claims that the purchase decision ultimately lies with the parents. The problem is that the parents do not see the transaction, and many may be blissfully unaware that it is even possible, until the bill arrives.

A few weeks ago an eight year old boy bought almost one thousand pounds worth of virtual doughnuts while playing on The Simpsons: Tapped Out game. Elsewhere, a five year old spend £1700 getting to the latter levels of Plants vs. Zombies. Just how these purchases are made will shed more light on who is accountable.

If the purchases were accidental, and the children we oblivious to the money they were spending, this places the developers in the frame. If they carried on playing, knowing fully what they were doing, this only raises further questions. It could be that the children were ‘addicted’ to the game, and unable to stop. Alternatively, it could be that better parenting is needed. Chocolate is also addictive, but a good parent does not allow their children to gorge themselves on it do they?

It can be argued that, by giving a child a smartphone or tablet, you are handing them certain responsibilities, you wouldn’t give your child your credit card would you? Educating parents to the idea that smartphones are buying tools could make many of them think twice before putting one in the hands of their children. This would, in effect, be punishing the phone companies, but at the end of the day, however, the phone is just that, a tool.

The phone offers a medium for many parties to buy and sell, the users buy what the developers sell. By offering this service, are they responsible for who uses it? Are eBay responsible for making sure that all products sold are fit for purpose, or that everyone pays up? While the phone companies could put more protective measures in place, it is the parents and developers who are neglecting their duties.

The Office of Fair Trading is not looking to ban such purchases, but looking to make sure the gaming industry abides by regulation, and measures are put in place to protect consumers. The results of the investigation will be published in October and should make for interesting reading.

Joe Errington is a marketing and social media executive for MITIE, A strategic outsourcing company who look after the facilities management of companies in the UK and abroad.