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UK reprimands kids' sites using peer pressure to sell memberships

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Two of the most popular websites for children in the UK are Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils: communities that offer young internet users a range of games, activities, and social features built around rosters of cartoon characters. They also offer extras to paying members, a business model that has recently gotten both sites into trouble with the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

In twin rulings on Wednesday, the ASA said that both Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils promoted paid memberships to children in an unfair manner, directly exhorting them to spend money. In the ruling against Moshi Monsters, the ASA noted that phrases such as "Members are going to be super popular" and "The Super Moshis need YOU" put undue pressure on younger players. Games available to non-members also ended with advertisements for paid activities, including messages such as "MEMBERS GET MORE MISSIONS AND Unique Moshlings! Epics With Prizes Cool New Games! JOIN NOW."

"EXCLUSIVE NEST ITEMS BRILLIANT BUNDLES BIN-CREDIBLE BIN BOTS AMAZING HATS."

The ruling against Bin Weevils made similar points, noting that players could upgrade their avatars' "nests" using either a free in-game currency (Mulch) or paid-for equivalent (Dosh) with these homes then given a "coolness rating." The game's homepage mixed free and paid-for features, with areas such as the "Dosh ATM" telling players: "What Can You Spend Dosh On? EXCLUSIVE NEST ITEMS BRILLIANT BUNDLES BIN-CREDIBLE BIN BOTS AMAZING HATS." The ASA concluded that Bin Weevils "presented children with direct exhortations to purchase membership subscriptions" and thus broke the UK's advertising standards code.

Both Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils responded that they were willing to change these advertisements following the ASA's complaints, with Bin Weevils noting that paid extras were a minor feature of the site, and that 90 percent of the content was free to users. A Moshi Monsters spokesperson told The Guardian: "We take our responsibilities very seriously with regards to how we communicate with all of our fans, especially children."

However, problems such as aggressive marketing to children aren't going to go away, especially as freemium business models proliferate on mobile devices. Apple, for example, has already faced a number of class-action lawsuits regarding in-app purchases, and last year replaced the "Free" button to download apps with the word "Get" to better reflect hidden costs. Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils both operated as desktop sites, but the world of apps and mobile devices may prove harder to police.