Simple account safeguards and a sound method of letting older children spend their pocket money can stop little ones purchasing big on mobile devices - whether inadvertently or deliberately.
Adults making online purchases using a smartphone is one thing. A child accidentally spending your hard-earned cash on an electronic game is quite another.
No wonder Tegan DeClark was shocked when she recently discovered a $109 iTunes charge on her credit card. It turned out her three-year-old daughter had made the transaction using an app. The free game was My Horse for iPad and the transaction was what's known as an in-app purchase.
''She obviously didn't know what she was doing; she was just pressing brightly coloured buttons,'' DeClark says. ''It just happened to be for buying 2500 credits for the game.''
The charges were debited to the credit card linked to the iTunes account that was used to set up the iPad. DeClark was able to get the charges reversed by contacting iTunes customer support, but it took more than a week and the service representative made it clear that it was a one-time exception.
The property manager from Queensland is only one of many parents who have been stung by accidental app purchases. While iTunes usually requires an account password for downloads, there's a 15-minute window after the password is entered when anything else can be downloaded and bought without re-entering it.
But the issue isn't exclusive to the Apple App Store and iTunes. Any online store that sells digital content can leave users with a bad case of bill shock if they don't take the right precautions.
Preventing inadvertent purchases by toddlers
On an Apple device, you can disable the password loophole in the system settings. Go to Settings > General > Restrictions, tap ''Enable Restrictions'', and enter a passcode to prevent your kids turning the restrictions off.
If you already have a passcode for unlocking the device, it's a good idea to use a different passcode here. In the restrictions, you can disable in-app purchases altogether, and change the ''require password'' setting from ''15 minutes'' to ''immediately''.
The problem is worse on Android smartphones and tablets, as the account password isn't required to make purchases.
You can, however, override this by enforcing password protection on new purchases in the Google Play Store settings. In the User Controls section, set a PIN code then tick the ''Use the PIN for purchases'' option.
Keeping your older kids 'appy
But what if kids are old enough to have a little leeway when it comes to downloading apps and other digital content?
A parenting coach and the author of What Your Child Needs from You: Creating a Connected Family, Dr Justin Coulson, says the best way to approach it is by starting on the right foot.
''You don't just give them an open credit card and say, 'Here's your iPhone, go for it', because they will,'' Coulson says.
''When you're starting out, you can say, 'Here are the rules. As you prove to me that you can do the right thing, then we can relax the rules over time'.
''So long as they're doing the right thing and demonstrating that they're trustworthy, then you can relax the boundaries and give them more autonomy.''
One way you can give your Apple-toting kids a little freedom is by setting them up with an iTunes allowance. In the latest version of the iTunes desktop program, you can do this by clicking on the ''Buy iTunes Gifts'' link on the right-hand side under Quick Links, scrolling down to the Allowances section and clicking on the ''Set up a monthly gift now'' link. You can create allowances from $20 to $100, and have it automatically renew on the first day of every month.
Another option is iTunes Gift Cards, which are available in denominations of $20, $30, $50 and $100.
For other content stores, such as the Google Play Store, Windows Phone Store or Xbox Live, you can take advantage of prepaid credit cards. These are similar to prepaid mobile SIM cards in that they can be topped up with different amounts, and there are no interest charges. However, there's typically a cost to buy the card up-front, and there are usually fees for loading funds, and account-keeping fees.
An IT manager and father of three boys, David Childs prefers using prepaid credit cards that his children fill up with their own pocket money.
''The credit cards are nice and easy to manage [via] a web page, and we're honest and upfront with our kids about the fact that we're going to see the statements and know what they're downloading,'' he says.
''If they burn up the money on the card, then there is no more until they can afford to recharge it.''
Prepaid credit cards
Canvas Visa Prepaid Card
It's a one-off cost of $7.95 for a standard card (maximum balance $1000) and $19.95 for a high-limit card (maximum balance $10,000). You can load funds online, through Australia Post and through participating retailers. The monthly management fee is $2.95, and it costs $3.95 every time you load new funds.
Load&Go Reloadable Visa Prepaid Card
Australia Post's prepaid Visa credit card is the cheapest of the bunch. Buying the card attracts a one-off cost of $6.95, and there are no monthly or reload fees. However, there's a 9¢ fee for every transaction, capped at 99¢ a month.
Woolworths Money Reloadable Prepaid MasterCard
Woolworths' card costs $9.95 as a one-off purchase, and you can choose between paying a $1 monthly service fee (good if the card is used regularly) or a $1 load fee every time you put money on the card.
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari