kids

"I was worried about my son’s obsession with Minecraft. So I spoke to an expert."

Last year my seven-year-old son discovered Minecraft. Before long, it became a bit of an obsession.

He was completely taken by the idea of being able to create his own world on the computer and, if I’d let him, he would have spent hours a day on it. When he wasn’t playing Minecraft, he was reading books about Minecraft or talking to me about Minecraft, to the point where my eyes would glaze over.

I have to admit I was slightly concerned. Was it okay for a kid to be so obsessed by a game on a screen? Would he find any of the content disturbing (zombies attacking, pet dogs getting killed, etc)? Would he somehow end up connecting with dodgy people online? And why was he – not to mention 120 million other people around the world – into a game that looked so… blocky?

Fortunately, there’s been some serious research done into Minecraft by a team of Aussie academics. Jane Mavoa from the University of Melbourne was involved in a study to see how kids play the game and how parents feel about it.

One of the things the study discovered is that a huge number of kids are playing Minecraft. A survey of 750 parents in Melbourne revealed that more than half of children aged 6-8 and more than two-thirds of kids aged 9-12 play the game.

That means a lot of parents have potentially had some of the same concerns as me. Even Mavoa hersel

“That’s how I ended up doing the PhD on it,” she tells Mamamia, “because I had exactly the same experience of watching my eldest becoming what I would describe as a little bit obsessed and thinking, ‘This has got to be doing something, and it’s on the computer, so it’s probably bad.’ But when I’ve actually looked into it, I’ve found that that’s probably not the case.”

Mavoa says the study showed that the number-one concern of parents about Minecraft is the amount of time their kids spend playing the game. But she believes we need to stop thinking in terms of how much screentime we allow our children to have.

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"Was it okay for a kid to be so obsessed by a game on a screen?" Image: Getty.

“We’re trying to shift the focus from the number of hours they spend doing an activity to looking at what they actually do,” she adds.

Mavoa says kids have the right to “self-directed” play.

“Minecraft is a really good opportunity for that in a digital realm,” she explains. “There’s actually a lot of similarities with the types of play that we know are really well connected to healthy development, and enjoyment and fun for children, which is important as well.”

Interestingly, the study showed that about half of kids who play Minecraft usually play with someone else.

“Things like iPads just so easily lend themselves to social play and co-play, and children tend to like playing with other children.”

More than 90 per cent of parents whose kids were playing Minecraft were able to come up with something positive about the game.

“Often parents would just write, ‘We like it because it’s creative,’ but then people would talk about it in relation to construction or problem-solving.”

Others said that their kids had shown interest in subjects like geology after playing the game.

That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve had discussions with my son about everything from wolves to obsidian to mycelium after he’s come across them in Minecraft.

LISTEN: Sophie Falkiner shares her rules for screen time, on our podcast for imperfect parents (post continues after audio...)

So how about one of my other concerns – that my son would want to play with other players online? Mavoa says the study showed only a small number of kids under 12 are playing the game that way. But she believes it’s not harmful in itself.

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“Consider all the sort of benefits that would come from that sort of socialisation, but within a cautious parenting framework,” she says. “Education about being responsible digital citizens is probably as effective or more effective than having hardware installed on the device, for example, that blocks stuff.”

As for my worry that some of the content in Minecraft might be disturbing, Mavoa says there were other parents who felt the same way – as well as those who felt the opposite.

“Some parents would specifically say, ‘Oh, we really like Minecraft because it’s not a violent game.’”

Mavoa believes parents shouldn’t beat themselves up over their kids being into something that involves screentime.

“It’s all about balance,” she says. “I think we get a little bit hung up on associations with screentime meaning obesity and addiction and violence. There’s no direct links. It’s all via other things – for example, lack of physical activity. There’s no direct relationship between the amount of time your child spends playing Minecraft, for example, and the amount of time they spend playing outside. There’s only a certain number of hours per day but it’s quite possible to have a child that is highly physically active and also really into video games. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

So yes, all this research does ease my concerns. But I have to admit I still don’t quite get the obsession with such a blocky-looking game.

Do you worry about how much time your kids spend playing on technology?

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