Ask the Mediatrician: My 11-year-old is addicted to Minecraft, what should I do?

MinecraftQ: My 11-year-old daughter is addicted to the game Minecraft. During the week it doesn’t seem to be a problem as she is busy with sports and homework. However, during the weekends she has a lot more free time and tends to spend hours playing Minecraft. What would be the amount of time that you recommend she play Minecraft per day?
~ Mind Crack or Minecraft? Burlingame/Hillsborough area, CA

Michael RichA: Dear Mind,

As technologies continue to develop and screen media become more and more prevalent in all of our lives, experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are moving away from the concept of screen time limits for children. This is because we have evolved as a society so screens, which used to be solely for entertainment, are now increasingly required for school, social life and communication. So to adhere to the AAP’s original recommendation of “1-2 hours of quality educational screen time” each day requires determining the quality and educational value of each individual activity — an undertaking neither kids nor parents are fully prepared to do.

Based on the latest research, I recommend children, teens and their parents sit down together and actively approach their 24 hour day as valuable time to be used in ways that support a healthy lifestyle. Thinking of their day as an empty glass, they should fill it with the essentials; enough sleep to grow and avoid getting sick, school, time to spend outdoors, play, socialize, do homework, and to sit down for one meal a day together as a family (perhaps the single most protective thing you can do to keep their bodies and minds healthy). Once these activities are totaled, remaining time can be used for other experiences that interest the child, such as playing Minecraft.

Remember, your daughter is at a stage in life where one of her key developmental tasks is how to prioritize activities and manage her time. Her academic and social demands are increasing and she is moving out of the nuclear family unit to a much larger universe of peers and the public. Minecraft is just one of many activities she will need to prioritize, put into perspective and ultimately regulate in terms of her time and attention. Ironically, time management and getting enough rest is essential to success within the game of Minecraft.

What is difficult in this case is Minecraft, like virtually all interactive screen media, is specifically designed to hook users in and keep them hooked in as long as possible. Young brains are particularly vulnerable to the seduction of the screen as they have not fully developed executive functioning skills used for self-regulation.

Approach this issue with your daughter as an exercise that will help her learn self-regulation. Choose a time when Minecraft and screen time are not the subject of conversation, when she is not feeling stressed, judged or criticized, and plan out with her how she wants to spend her weekend days. Once you’ve developed the plan together, offer to support her in achieving her goals. This reframes the issue as her self-actualization — her taking  responsibility for her valuable time, rather than you restricting her fun.

If the weekend arrives and she says all she wants to do is play Minecraft, use this as an opportunity to help her deconstruct her motivations — why does she want to play? Explain how the game is designed to grab and keep her attention, so that by feeling like she has to play, she is actually giving up the freedom and autonomy she is seeking at this stage and caving in to the game designers’ manipulations. Although your daughter may be reluctant to hear this message at first, exposing her to critical thinking about her choices will eventually help her understand her motivations and be better able to control them — a lesson that will prepare her to handle many life choices, Minecraft, screen media and beyond.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~The Mediatrician®