Screen Time

“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.

Little child using a tablet covered with a blanket
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Why Is Minecraft So Addictive?

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.

[Free Resource: Brain-Boosting Video Games Kids (and Parents) Love]

If video games are your kid’s cup of tea, it can’t hurt to sneak some educational value in them! Minecraft is a fun game that incorporates planning skills and time management — both important skills to develop in ADHD brains!  Check out ways you can incorporate those skills inside and outside the game here.
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Is Minecraft a Good or Bad Influence?

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.

[Game Over: How to Prevent Screen Time Addiction]

Child hand draws the multicolored picture. Outdoors close-up.
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How Minecraft Helps Build Planning Skills

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.

Electronic games addiction. Mother taking tablet away from the addicted child. Education, childhood, family and people concept.
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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.

[More Face Time, Less Screen Time]

Two teens with ADHD play video games together
Two teens with ADHD play video games together
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How Much Is Too Much?

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.

A gap year is not a full year to hang out, play video games, hit the European party circuit, lounge on the couch, or sit passively by waiting for something to happen.If you decide a gap year is right for your family, use the following advice to make sure the time off is worthwhile.
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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.

Software programs, such as Cogmed, may improve working memory—the ability to hold information in your mind long enough to accomplish a goal (like remembering a phone number long enough to dial it). Other brain training programs may reduce impulsivity and increase attention. The “games” in the programs look and feel like video games, but are designed to exercise parts of the brain that aren’t working at their optimum level.
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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.

A young girl playing basketball outside, since exercise is a great way for kids with ADHD to learn how to study
Young girl playing basketball outside with pink shirt
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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.

The first step is almost always the hardest. When starting a new task, isolate the prep work from the actual work and treat them as two distinct goals. Task One: Gather everything you need. Task Two: Jump in. Use a timer to avoid feeling trapped, panicked, or overwhelmed. Set a start time and a stop time. Schedule in a bit of fun before starting a task you dislike to get up of momentum. If all else fails, ask a friend to come coach you through the work.
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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.

A sign that bans use of digital devices like phones and Minecraft
A sign that bans use of digital devices like phones and Minecraft
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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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