My son’s iTunes spending spree: How do we teach the value of a dollar to kids who never see money?

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

My heart sank as the email poured in.

iTunes Store Your receipt No.204045886694. Your receipt No.204045886695. Your receipt No.204045886696. Your receipt No.204045886697. Your receipt No.204045886698. Your receipt No.204045886699.

Sure, I’m capable of staying up after 11 p.m., mainlining Sinead O’Connor b-sides from Apple’s infernal riverboat casino and meth lab, but this wasn’t one of those times. This was one of those other times.

One of the times when my 7-year-old son Ben stays up after 8 p.m. psychically imperiling himself with exposure to the satanic video game DragonVale. DragonVale is not satanic because it makes you think violent or impure thoughts, or minces that cognitive phantom called an attention span. It’s satanic in the plainer, less refutable way: DragonVale takes your money and takes it and takes it, like a pernicious con game should.

“IN-APP PURCHASES,” said the woman on the Apple hotline.

“Inapt?” I foolishly asked, still trembling with fury at my second-grader’s three-figure spending spree.

“Yes,” she said. “In-app.” She suspected I’d misheard.

I silently took the correction and persisted, asking, “What are those?”

She resorted to exquisite vaguespeak. “A lot of kids don't worry that when they're doing things, it does take money out of their profiles.”

Right. A lot of kids. Doing things. Money out of their profiles.

How am I ever going to teach my son the value of a digital dollar when “doing things” drains his “profile”?

Well, it turns out, for now I’m not. For now I’m going to do what the Apple lady, who declined to be named, suggested: Shut down my children’s opportunity for in-app purchases, which turn out to be cute virtual dog biscuits and amethysts that pop up for seemingly virtual—but actually actual—sale within the virtual world of a game app.

The way you buy gold in World of Warcraft? You can buy gems in DragonVale. And take it from me, those seductive little non-rubies can run you $24.99 a pop, and when you buy them you think you’re just kind of luckily acquiring them. Winning them, maybe. You don’t feel the money leaving your hands or your mom’s hands. It’s just gone.

So I’m going to believe that’s what happened to my son. And it won’t happen again. I chilled out as Madame Apple issued brisk instructions like an ER nurse. I went to “Settings.” I opened “Restrictions” and set a code for it that I won’t disclose to anyone. (Note to my brother: It’s our childhood phone number.) Then to my confusion I was told, under Restrictions, to turn OFF “In-App Purchases,” though wasn’t I turning Restrictions ON?

Used to this panic in her patients, Madame Apple patiently explained that the on-off slider was for “Allowed Content.” So by turning OFF “In-App Purchases” I was disallowing them. No more $400 peridots made of digital stardust for the junior gamer in the house.

Now, how to teach my son about personal finance when people don’t spend money or even sign checks and credit-card receipts? Rather, their “profiles” imperceptibly leech it out. Maybe there’s an app for that, where in-app purchases of virtual bankbooks cost a mere $24.99.

I should say that Madame Apple put me on hold while someone at the iTunes store refunded every last dime turned over to DragonVale.

Thank you, AAPL. Sorry about the rough quarter.

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