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Apple attempts to childproof its devices and apps

March 11, 2011 at 10:10 AM ET

Even before the latest software update, iOS devices already offered parental controls which can be used to turn off in-app purchases entirely.

We've heard stories about parents who were unaware that their kids were spending $52 on virtual coins in an iPhone game or running up $1,400 iTunes bills while purchasing "Smurfberries"for characters in the Smurfs' Village iPhone app — until the credit card bills came in mail. Apple is now taking some measures to prevent such woes from becoming common.

The reason these troublesome bills build up in the first place is because of the way some iPhone apps incorporate Apple's in-app purchase system.

While most apps make it clear that in-app purchases of points or in-app items — such as crops or building material in a farm-themed game — do in fact cost real-world money, not all do. And sometimes children may simply not comprehend that a few taps on a touchscreen can drain mom and dad's bank account.

In order to help parents prevent accidental — or mischievous — purchases, Apple provides parental controls which can be used to add password protection or to shut off in-app purchases entirely.

As shutting off in-app purchases entirely can be inconvenient to parents themselves, most opt for the password protection option. Unfortunately that particular feature has a little flaw: There is a 15-minute window after each time that a password is entered during which someone can continue making purchases.

This means that if parents enter their passwords to buy something and then hand their iPhones to their kids, the little ones will have about 15 minutes during which they can cause trouble.

Well, no more of that!

The Washington Post reports that Apple has partially removed that 15-minute window from the latest version of the iOS operating system. As GigaOm's Ryan Kim clarifies though, the system still isn't ideal:

An Apple spokesperson clarified that the password is not required for every in-app purchase but is necessary the first time someone opens up an app, even if it falls within 15 minutes of a password entry. If a parent agrees to the first purchase within an app, that opens up another 15 minute window. The idea is that requiring a password for the first in-app purchase should ensure that a parent has signed off on the payment. This is not as aggressive as we first reported and puts a little more responsibility back on parents.

So yes, Apple's safety measure isn't perfect, but at least the company appears to be listening somewhat to the suggestions that its devices need childproofing.

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Rosa Golijan writes about tech here and there. She's a bit obsessed with Twitter, loves to be liked on Facebook, and wishes iOS password prompts would stop slowing down her app shopping sprees.

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