What to do when teens and tweens' online habits blow the family budget

Games such as FIFA have in-game purchases that help players win.
Games such as FIFA have in-game purchases that help players win. Photo: Shutterstock

Glancing through her bank statement made Brisbane mother-of-two Belinda* realise there was a problem.

What had started with a few small amounts, as little as $1.60, for video game purchases, a song or an app “add on”, racked up almost unknowingly by her teenagers, was now totalling almost $300. Neither Belinda nor her children, aged 14 and 16, had realised how these costs were adding up.

“My eldest had asked for permission to purchase a game so he could play a certain video game with his friends but he and I both didn’t realise the game stored my credit card details and continued to charge certain fees after that initial purchase,” she says. “My youngest had used too much data on her mobile phone which is automatically direct-debited from my account.”

Belinda says it was disconcerting to discover how quickly these unexpected costs had multiplied and the apparent ease with which they were deducted from her account.

She is not alone. A survey undertaken by the not-for-profit Financial Basics Foundation earlier this year indicates that more than half of Australian parents of tweens (aged eight to 12) and teens have covered the bill for unapproved online spending for either mobile phone calls or data, in-game purchases, music, video streaming or apps.

While most transactions were under $100 in some instances the debts incurred were much more. The most expensive purchase was an eye-watering $7000.

“Half the online overspending by tweens and teens was with their parents’ credit or debit card,” says Financial Basics Foundation chief executive Katrina Birch.

Of the 1000 parents surveyed, one in five said their tween or teen had knowingly overspent while 34 per cent or more than one in three said their child had made an honest mistake like Belinda’s teenagers. (As an aside, some good news is that just 2 per cent said their child had been scammed).

Birch says in today’s cashless society it is very easy for children to spend money without realising it, and easy for them to be oblivious to the value of money.

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“Technology makes online shopping easy and accessible, and a simple matter of hitting the buy button on a screen from anywhere at any time, without really understanding the consequences,” Birch says. “It’s vital parents teach their kids the importance of earning and saving before spending by speaking openly about the household budget.”

According to new Suncorp research that isn’t happening in most households, with 57 per cent of parents not talking to their kids about the weekly family budget.

Suncorp’s head of stores and speciality banking, Jason Stephens says this is a cause for concern because involving kids in conversations about money from a young age is critical for them to understand and appreciate money.

“Including children in weekly budgeting conversations helps them to develop an understanding of the value of money,” Stephens says. “Encouraging them to save their money to buy things, rather than getting into debt will equip them with the skills to make better spending decisions, both online and in store.”

Introducing personal accountability is exactly how Belinda tackled her kids’ unapproved spending. “I have since signed my kids up so they have their own bank accounts,” she says. “They both have a debit card they can use for purchases so now they are spending their own money and they are much more careful with what they are purchasing as a result.”

Belinda is confident they have learned from their mistakes and says they’re now very aware of how small costs can be incurred and add up quickly.

“They haven’t done anything like that again which is great.”

*Name has been changed.

Georgina Dent is a journalist, editor and TV commentator with a keen focus on women's empowerment and gender equality.

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