One of the most common questions I am asked by parents is, “How do I get my kids to stop playing video games and engage in other activities?” While this question comes up for all kinds of games and apps, it seems to be particularly hard for some parents to get their kids to stop playing Minecraft. In some games, kids can stop when they reach the end of the level, earn a particular number of points, or collect a set amount of “strength” or “health.” However, in sandbox games such as Minecraft, there are frequently no clear stopping points, levels, or defined goals. Games such as Minecraft always have something going on that is not completed. Also, the longer one plays games such as Minecraft, the more challenges one needs to overcome, and the more opportunities and privileges there are within the game. Additionally, in the survival mode of Minecraft, children often fear that others will destroy their accomplishments if they leave the game.
If you have a preteen or teen who has grown accustomed to playing Minecraft for hours on end, you’ll probably have quite a battle in front of you when you attempt to set clear limits on Minecraft play. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. My general approach is to encourage a healthy “Play Diet” in which you emphasize and support alternative activities in which your child can participate. While these may not be as alluring as Minecraft, suitable substitutes such as going to the gym or a local pool, engaging in an art or construction project, or any other activity that catches your child’s fancy may be helpful. With younger children, you are likely to have a bit firmer control and will be able to set more effective limits.
Here are some of my suggested strategies to help children stop playing Minecraft and transition from video-game play to other activities.
1. Have effective and readily available consequences for overuse of game time.
These do not need to be harsh rules, but can simply be something that you are able to apply consistently. Don’t threaten to take Minecraft away for a month (it would probably make your life miserable), but instead set a consequence that is shorter and enforceable. For example, if your child refuses to stop playing Minecraft at an agreed-upon time, he could lose his video game play for a portion or all of the following day. Should this occur again in the next week, he would lose double that amount. If this continues to occur on a regular basis or is accompanied by severe opposition, a more stringent approach might need to be applied. This should be done incrementally so that he does not lose a week of game play before he has previously lost 2 days worth of gaming. Parents should be firm but not rigid. For example, a child who says, “I’ll be off in a minute,” but instead takes 90 seconds is not engaging in the same level of opposition as one who continues for 30 minutes and then storms off the game in anger towards the parent.
2. Start setting limits at an early age.
The sooner appropriate and effective limits are set, the more you will be able to reduce oppositional tendencies about video game use. The best limits are not elimination but reasonable-use strategies, so that children are not “starved” from an activity in which their peers are engaged. Teaching your child to use video games and technology responsibly is a difficult but worthwhile task.
3. Develop reasonable rules and limits in advance.
This is particularly important for children who may overdo it. Start with some basic ideas about how much time may be spent in front of a screen. Screen time should include non-school activities in front of the computer, tablets, and cell phones. Parents and educators are often amazed to know how much time typical kids spend in front of screens. A 2010 study from the Kaiser Foundation of more than 1000 families indicated the following:
- Kids aged 8 to 10 spent 3 hours and 41 minutes on television, 46 minutes on computers, and 1 hour on video games.
- Kids aged 11 to 14 spent 5 hours on television, 1 hour 46 minutes on computers, and 1 hour 25 minutes on video games.
- Kids aged 15 to 18 spent 4 hours 22 minutes on television, 1 hour 39 minutes on computers, and 1 hour 8 minutes on video games.
My suggestion is to stay somewhat under these limits for computer and video games and to cut down as much as possible on television. In general, about an hour a day for video games is recommended, with more time allowed for older kids. Studies suggest that more than 3 hours a day in front of screens is detrimental to children’s psychological adjustment but that 1 hour a day is actually beneficial.
4. Practice and reward appropriate disengagement from fun activities.
Use clear and meaningful consequences and rewards when shifting from play to homework or from hanging out to getting ready for bed. This will help your child recognize that you mean business when you tell him it is time to stop playing video games. Gameplay transitions are very difficult for children who are rigid or argumentative because players often need to retrace their efforts if they are interrupted. Traditional strategies such as giving a 10-minute warning, using a visible timer, or having another fun activity to which to transition may help. Some children may also benefit from having a specific routine where they regularly go from video game time to another routine activity.
5. If it seems impossible to set limits, then own the technology.
Do not allow your kids to own their own tablets, computers, phones, or consoles. Purchase a tablet or laptop for yourself and make it very clear that permission (given freely for set amounts of time) is necessary to use the hardware. This can be especially helpful with younger children if it is well established. Discuss exceptions such as more time for game play on weekends, vacations, or an extended family road trip in advance, giving clear limits on extra technology time and connecting it very specifically to vacation or other family events.
6. Control access to the Internet.
Put the router in your bedroom and turn it on and off at a set times. With teens (who own smart phones), you may also need to have a safe place for their phones during the Internet ban. Keep in mind that this will affect others in the household, so it can be an unwieldy approach.