Happy interactive Christmas! If you've read your children's wish lists for Santa this year, chances are you will have discovered a theme.
Whether you have older children looking for a smartphone or younger children requesting a Furby, this year's top Christmas presents all connect to the internet - and many could land you with a hefty bill. More than eight out of ten parents are planning to buy a technology-related gift for their children this year, with the most popular buys being tablets, video games and smartphones, according to a study by the consumer website uSwitch.
Last month's games console releases, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, are expected to be among the most popular presents this Christmas, and even for younger children, toys such as the Teksta Robotic Puppy, Furby Boom and Ubooly soft toy come with interactive apps. All these gifts are likely to increase your children's screen time, which could leave them, and your bank balance, exposed to some unwanted influences.
Parents should set up such gifts carefully before handing them over to their children, as well as talking to them about the dangers and responsibilities of new technology. "There are two sides to this," says Marie-Louise Abretti, broadband expert at uSwitch.
"The first is that you don't want your children running up huge costs, and the second is that you don't want them seeing anything that they shouldn't." She advised going to a shop when buying children's Christmas gifts, rather than ordering them online, and seeking advice from an expert about, for example, how to change the settings on tablets and smartphones. "They will be able to talk you through it - don't just give your children a tablet on Christmas morning that you haven't yet taken out of the box."
Thanks to the dangers of popular ''freemium'' games on smartphones and tablets, as well as the ability to buy extra games and films on consoles, your children could end up spending hundreds of pounds, unwittingly, on anything from blue Smurfberries to virtual doughnuts for Homer Simpson, if adults do not put the right controls on their gadgets. Parent and teacher groups are concerned by the increase in technology being given at Christmas.
This year's national Anti Bullying Week focused on cyberbullying, and the lack of knowledge parents have about the technology behind it. Elizabeth Booth, head teacher at Dalmain school in south London, says her staff have had to hold briefings for parents about how to control their children's use of tablets, smartphones and games consoles.
"I'm seriously concerned that parents will be giving children technological toys that might put them at risk," she says. "Parents need to check what applications their children are using. Exercising parental controls will give them peace of mind." The Office of Fair Trading is also concerned that some games include "potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices to which children may be particularly susceptible".
Although the regulator has proposed new guidelines for video games developers, these have not yet been formalised and were not in place for the Christmas rush. A spokesman for the OFT said it was "fair to say that we've already seen positive changes on behalf of the games industry". He advised parents to use the guides on the Ofcom website to ensure that they had turned off in-app purchasing on smartphones and tablets (see the box below).
Dr Richard Wilson, chief executive of the video-game industry body Tiga, said members were already working to ensure that they incorporated OFT recommendations in their games, and that advance warnings about in-app purchasing was ''good practice''. He advised parents to spend some time playing the games before allowing their children to do so. Ms Abretti said that there was also the danger, with smartphones and tablets containing a SIM card, that children could run up bills for talking and downloading data without realising it.
She said parents should either look at capping their children's contracts at a certain level, or buy a pay-as-you-go SIM. She also stressed that parents should check that they know how to switch off ''data roaming'' on children's devices in case they take them abroad. The bottom line, Ms Abretti said, is not to hand your children ''fresh out of the box technology'', but to ensure you have taken appropriate steps first. Otherwise your child's Christmas list could be even more expensive than you had budgeted for. Broadband Most broadband providers (ISPs) offer parental control software, and from next year you will have to opt out of, rather than in to, them when you change provider. If you are not planning to change your ISP, you'll need to ask your provider to set up controls. BT's Family Protection, for example, allows you to block websites and set limits to how long your children spend online; TalkTalk's Home Safe blocks websites that you deem unsuitable from every device that uses your home broadband. New smartphones, tablets and consoles Turn off in-app purchasing on iPhones and iPads by going to general settings and "enabling restrictions". Switch in-app purchasing off. Android phones and tablets You can't turn off in-app purchasing, but you can hide it behind a Pin code. Open the Google Play store app and select Settings. Scroll down to Set or Change Pin, enter a code, then select Use Pin for Purchases.
For more details, see Ofcom's videos at consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2013/03/how-to-mobile-guides/. Some settings allow you to turn off access to certain content; see thinkuknow.co.uk. Games consoles See xbox.com or uk.playstation.com for how to select privacy settings. Contract providers With phones or tablets, you may also be buying a monthly contract. Marie-Louise Abretti, at uSwitch, suggests using a pay-as-you-go contract, or asking your provider to cap the amount your child can spend monthly, to prevent you ending up with a huge bill for data downloads.
Home computers If your young children have received a Furby, Ubooly or other interactive toy for Christmas, chances are they will be spending a lot of time on the computer interacting with it - even if they don't have their own tablet. Ensure that they don't see what they shouldn't by setting up their own profile on the computer, with password protection and suitably restrictive settings. This includes turning on Google SafeSearch, in the Google settings, and doing the same with YouTube. To lock YouTube into safe mode on a child's profile you'll need a Google account. There is more information on safesearchkids.com/youtube-parental-controls/.
With your children Discuss the settings on the new device, and why they are there. Explain the dangers of in-app purchasing, or of clicking on pop-up windows that may ring premium rate phone numbers. The government website thinkuknow.co.uk has videos that you can watch and discuss together about internet safety. The Daily Telegraph Case study Jane Hogarth, from Forest Hill in south-east London, is finding it hard to keep up with her children's knowledge of technology and requests for more gadgets and games. "Ben is nearly nine now and Lois is five, so it is really beginning," she says.
"Ben has just got an email address and he is starting to ask me about whether he can click on those pop-ups that say 'Win an iPad', and things like that." The family has already fallen foul of in-app purchasing, after Jane allowed her son to buy a game with his pocket money and he clicked the button more than once, thus buying it several times over. "They know you don't really want the game twice, but they still charge you," says Jane, a charity fundraiser. "I know what children are like, they just bang and bang things if they don't work, and the game developers will let you pay again and again." Jane, 39, says she took advice from her children's school on how to set parental controls on tablets, computer games and laptops.
"Our children really are a different generation. What the school told me about the technology they have and how they use it is scary - it made me realise that I have to keep on top of it."