“One More Block!” Managing Your Child’s Minecraft Obsession
Minecraft is addictive. That’s a fact. And kids with ADHD seem to hyperfocus particularly hard on building the game’s creative, pixelated worlds. Which is all fine and good, until it’s time to stop — and the tantrums and defiance begin. Here’s your survival guide, parents.
The children with ADHD who come in to Learning Works for Kids love three things: watching television, playing computer games, and playing with LEGOs. Minecraft addiction is an extension of all those things, so I hear about it all the time from concerned parents. As a result, I’ve interviewed hundreds of kids about their use of Minecraft and devised some best strategies for keeping video-game use to a safe, healthy level everyone can live with. Here they are.
No formal research about Minecraft exists, but there is a great deal of research about video games having both positive and negative effects on kids. There’s compelling data that suggests that video games can improve processing speed, working memory, pro-social behaviors, problem-solving skills, social involvement, and the impact of psychotherapy. Research also suggests that certain strategy-based video games can actually build parts of the brain and improve cognitive flexibility.
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How Minecraft Helps Build Focus
When playing Minecraft, the ability to focus — to really sustain your attention on one task for an extended period of time — is incredibly important. If you want to build something large or complicated, you have to stay on a particular task through numerous different steps and processes, sometimes for hours on end. When a child is building something in Minecraft, it’s amazing to think he has ADHD at all because he’s clearly focusing so intently. And the idea is that he’s exercising that skill in the Minecraft environment, building up the attention muscle so that he can use it at school and while doing homework.
At school, kids are often asked to plan a project or what they’re going to do for homework. They can be very disorganized and struggle to walk through all the steps that planning necessitates. Minecraft also asks kids to plan intensely to build some big, cool project. They’ll have to watch a video about it. They’ll have to gather and craft all the different items that they’re going to need to build it. They start at the ground level and then build in stages, making sure to keep in mind their plan and how they’re accomplishing it. This is a much more fun and engaging way for them to learn planning skills.
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So What Are the Risks?
Like anything, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. There are concerns about health and social problems among kids who are sitting in their rooms and being withdrawn from others. Also, there is a portion of kids with ADHD that overdoes it, and becomes obsessed with video games. Russell Barkley, Ph.D., and Mariellen Fischer did a study where they found teenagers with ADHD typically play no more than do their neurotypical peers, except for a small group that was very, very engaged and over-involved with video games.
In terms of psychological adjustment, playing for one hour a day seems to be the healthiest amount of time — and it’s probably healthier than just sitting watching TV. Again, the whole idea is having balance. The most important thing that kids can do is to exercise and to be out and engaged in social kinds of activities. But in today’s world, digital play is a part of what they do; that’s a reality.
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Can Video Games Be Addictive?
Absolutely. There’s no question about that. Kids with ADHD have more difficulty transitioning away from playing video games than do other kids. Minecraft makes that even more problematic because it is a sandbox game – you can go anywhere in the game and do anything you want; there’s not a particular set of goals and structures. As a result, sometimes it’s endless — and that makes it very difficult for kids to stop playing.
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When Should I Be Worried?
Roughly 3-10% of children are at risk for “Internet gaming disorder.” Your child may be at risk if he experiences some withdrawal symptoms when the game is taken away, if he wants to spend more and more time playing, and if he’s been unsuccessful in his attempts to stay away from gaming on his own. If he loses interest in previous activities and hobbies, and continues to play even though it’s causing a great deal of distress with family, those are additional red flags.
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How Can We Help?
The best thing to do is encourage a balanced play diet that includes different kinds of play on a regular basis. A healthy play diet will vary based on a child’s age and interests, but the constant is that it must be modeled by the parents. They’ve got to exercise. They’ve got to read. They’ve got to have a hobby. They’ve got to make non-digital play more attractive by putting some energy and some money into that. They’ve got to take their kids to the museum or the ballpark.
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How Can We Get Her to Stop Playing Without a Fight?
Give your child a 10-minute warning and set a visual timer. Do this with other activities, as well, so your children become accustomed to it. Then, have them engage in a specific routine after video-game play, such as a brief game discussion, a healthy snack, or going outside. Finally, apply clear and routine consequences for meltdowns and inappropriate behavior. Parents sometimes need to take away Minecraft privileges for a brief amount of time (one to two days or longer) to show that they mean business before the kids respond.
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How Do We Police Video Game Use During Homework Time?
Ask your child to voluntarily to give up her cell phone for a set amount of time when engaged with homework. I typically suggest a 30- to 60-minute "handoff," after which time your teen can check his phone for messages and then return to homework if necessary. Also, keeping computers and other technologies in public areas can keep teenagers more aware of staying on task. Focus not on shutting down Minecraft, but rather on developing basic time-management skills. I encourage teenagers to read the time-management chapter from my book, Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager's Guide to Executive Functions(#CommissionsEarned), and for parents to review some of our articles to learn more about time management.
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