Gaming platform Roblox has boomed in popularity during the pandemic. 75% of 9-12 year olds in the US are now on the app, according to the company. But there is a problem that can be very expensive for parents.
Despite being aimed at young children and being advertised as free to join and download, the gaming platform allows excessive spending on in-app purchases, such as clothing and accessories for avatars, with each individual purchase costing up to hundreds, sometimes even thousands of dollars.
Parents are now reporting cases of children being lured into casino-level spending sprees without parents’ knowledge, in some cases racking up bills of thousands of dollars in just days.
Desire for these “rare” items often pushes children into outrageous spending, with some kids reporting being pressured to buy gifts for others on the platform. Scammers take advantage of the platform to target children, tricking them into handing over expensive items.
ParentsTogether urges all parents of children on Roblox to immediately check settings on both the app and third-party services such as iTunes to ensure that in-app purchases are restricted or switched off, and a password required for all purchases. ParentsTogether calls on Roblox to 1) stop baiting children into outrageous spending and 2) put in place robust systems that truly protect kids and parents from financial exploitation.
Below are stories of impacted parents and an outline of some of the factors that make Roblox a financial and emotional minefield for kids:
Richard Walters discovered his 10-year-old daughter had spent $7,200 on Roblox over two months during lockdown, despite setting a spending cap on her purchases when they set up the account. He told ParentsTogether: “Over the course of two to three months there was an exponential process in both the frequency with which our daughter was buying currency and the amounts she was purchasing — it started at $1 here or there but by the time I realized what was going on she was buying Roblox currency in $120 denominations and had bought eight lots that very day.
“It is also clear that at some level she knew it was wrong but was scared to say anything, having dug a big hole already. She was carrying a heavy burden that was impacting her wellbeing at home and at school as some of her friends lobbied for ever more ‘rare’ gifts from her that cost hundreds of dollars at a time. We had no idea that such things existed in the game. Clearly the ‘rarity’ of these avatar items is specifically designed to induce envy, incentivize spending and ultimately encourage gambling habits.”
- Sarah Louise Petty, a mom in Larchmont, New York, was shocked to discover a payment in her bank statement of $1,250 to a third-party app after her son bought items in Roblox. She told Good Morning America that peer pressure had played a role: “Because his friendships were kind of trying at the time, and he was feeling a bit outcast, he was purchasing Robux and giving gifts to his friends,” Petty said.
- 72-year-old Steve Cumming made what he thought was a one-time payment of $5.65 when his daughter downloaded Roblox — he didn’t realise that it was in fact paying for an in-app purchase and that his daughter would be able to continue buying things with the same card. A month later, he found over $5,000 had been charged to his account for thousands of in-app purchases. He told journalists his daughter had not understood what she was doing: “She thought she was playing with monopoly money – it didn’t seem real to her. How can these companies be allowed to trap minors in these games? To trap people who are vulnerable?”
- An 11-year-old girl in the UK ran up a bill of over $3,300 over five days while her mum was recovering in hospital from an operation to remove a brain tumour. Her father told The Guardian: “The first I knew about it was when our bank informed us that we had exceeded our overdraft limit. My daughter managed to make 48 separate purchases, totalling almost £250, in a single day. At what point does a company step in to investigate this level of activity?”
- Maria Vasquez found her 9-year-old son Thenniel had spent $1,162.32 on in-app purchases in games including Roblox. Vasquez told Global News that Thenniel, who has autism spectrum disorder, had not realised the games cost money and had memorised her password without her knowledge. “He’s a minor. He’s nine years old with autism,” said Vasquez.
Factors that make Roblox a minefield for children
While Roblox is free to download, many parents don’t realize that once in the game, players can buy in-app currency that can be used to purchase a vast range of items for their avatar from third-party apps. These vary widely in cost — from a sword for $1 to a hat accessory costing $600. For small children, who don’t yet understand the value of money, navigating this in-app economy can be challenging. The fact that Roblox uses a different currency to the real world — “Robux” — adds an extra layer of confusion for children.
Financial scamming is a big issue on Roblox, with people regularly tricking children into handing over valuable items for nothing in return in popular games like Adopt Me. Scammers use tactics like asking to borrow items and not giving them back, pressuring children to hand over their item first in a trade and then disappearing, and even pretending to be famous YouTubers to win trust.
As well as the sheer cost, high levels of in-app spending places a mental strain on children. The existence of ‘rare’ items creates inequality and jealousy that can incentivize inordinate spending. Children report feeling pressured to keep up with peers’ avatars and to buy gifts for others.
Parents point to the addictive nature of in-app spending on gaming platforms and how rapidly spending can get out of control. It is not just parents who have noticed this — authorities in countries including the UK have been consulting on whether certain in-game purchases like “loot boxes” count as gambling under existing laws.
Although Roblox says that parents can switch off or restrict their children’s spending via app settings, even tech-savvy parents have found themselves in trouble. Parents often think that they haven’t linked a credit card to their child’s Roblox account, but since purchases are often made via third-party operators, payments can be made via a variety of platforms where parents do have payment details set up, such as PayPal, Google Play, iTunes, Xbox, Microsoft, Windows, Amazon, etc.
While parents of children who made unauthorized purchases can often get refunds — as happened in the above examples — to do so they often need to navigate the varying refund policies of the third-party providers. Some have reported being refused refunds by Apple, for example, or being pinged between Roblox, Paypal and their bank.