- When my neurodivergent son asked to start playing “Minecraft,” I was nervous about the screen time.
- I decided to play with him to see what it was like and help ease him back into the real world.
- I started to see why he loves it so much — and now I find myself playing it too.
Screen time — and how much to regulate it — is a topic most parents face daily. Over the years, my husband and I have struggled to set effective limits for our two sons, who are very different. Freddie, who’s 6 and neurotypical, gets upset when his screen time is up, but his tantrums pass within minutes. Max, who’s 8 and neurodivergent, has a much harder time disconnecting from screens. When Max’s screen time is up, he becomes angry and stays dysregulated for hours. Transitions are particularly hard for him, and putting down his tablet is the hardest transition of all.
As Max entered second grade, we knew video games were coming down the pipeline — and I was worried. I’d already researched the negative effects of gaming on the brains of children with ADHD. Max, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and sensory processing disorder, is constantly seeking dopamine hits, which video games amply provide. I could barely get him to transition back to real life from an “Oddbods” episode. How was I supposed to bring him out of an even more immersive screen experience?
Last year, Max’s friend in second grade told him about a game he played on his mom’s phone, “Minecraft.” He came home from school that day begging me to play. I froze, then said what I always say when I don’t know how to answer my child: “I need to discuss that with your father.”
That night, my husband and I researched “Minecraft.” We learned about creative mode, where kids are able to explore a three-dimensional world and build things. The players are immortal, and there is no violence. I thought, how bad can this be?
Introducing Max to the world of ‘Minecraft’
Max is brilliant in many ways. His art teacher once told me that he is innately what every artist strives to be: free of inhibitions. “Please repeat that to his English teacher when he can’t sit still in class,” I joked.
But she’s right. My son is an incredible artist and a naturally gifted musician. His art is charged with electricity and movement, and he can play songs on the piano by ear. As his mother, I’m always looking for more outlets to celebrate these strengths — because the truth is he also struggles a lot.
After researching more about “Minecraft” and its use as a resource for neurodivergent kids, we decided to let him play.
Watching Max move through the “Minecraft” world was fascinating to me. On a normal day, it takes him 20 minutes to put on his shoes. But in the Overworld — the primary dimension in “Minecraft” — he can create things as quickly as he can dream them up. In “Minecraft,” his imagination is king, and he has no earthly restrictions.
He doesn’t have to worry about how his shirt feels on his skin, or whether the sun is too bright on his face. There are no weird smells to distract him or loud noises to infuriate him. The pace of the game perfectly matches the pace of his mind, and anything is possible.
Over the first few months, Max was so excited to play “Minecraft” that he followed our rules without complaint. When the timer went off, he dropped his device like it was a hot plate. But as time went on, he started to push back. He tried to lawyer me into giving him more “Minecraft” minutes.
When I wouldn’t, he started bargaining, pleading, and trying to make deals. His anxiety around the time limit escalated, and he became fixated on how much time he had left. When his time with the game was up, I’d have to take the device away from him, leaving him hysterically crying and screaming that I was “the actual worst mom in the world.”
It felt like “Minecraft” had turned on Max — and on me. I was at a loss. Taking it away felt punitive, and getting back to the place of moderation we were in when he first started playing felt impossible.
I kept thinking back to the first time he played and how he’d been free of inhibition. A new world had opened up to him — one that was full of color and possibility. I didn’t want him to lose that. There had to be a solution.
Finding the balance between time spent in the Overworld and in our world
I decided to join Max in that world. We set new ground rules. For the last 10 minutes of his screen time, I’d come and sit with him as he played. This gave him the opportunity to show me what he’d created and teach me the things he’d learned.
When Max is in a 3D realm like that of the game, he experiences intense sensory overload; pulling him out of that experience is extremely jarring for him. My hope was to build a bridge between the “Minecraft” world and the real world and slowly bring him back to real life.
It was a good plan, and it worked for a few days. Then Max started begging me to play “Minecraft” with him.
“Please, Mama,” he said. “If you’re in the world with me, we can fly together, and I can teach you how to build.”
I’m not sure why I said yes. Part of me liked the idea of turning the solo immersive video-game experience into one with more human engagement. Part of me was just really curious why this weird game was so addictive.
I downloaded “Minecraft” on my phone, and we were off.
I learned fairly quickly that there’s something joyful about flying above the Overworld. “Look, there’s a little blue bird!” I cried to Max on our first day playing together. With his help, I learned how to craft and build. Ten minutes quickly turned into 20, and then 30.
I found myself playing it on my phone when I was alone, while waiting for my kids in the school pickup line or before I fell asleep at night. There was something very soothing about being in control — albeit in another world — and completing a project. I started researching different ways to elevate my builds. I’d never considered myself tech-savvy, but with “Minecraft” I felt like I was.
But while Max and I were having a blast playing “Minecraft” together, his screen time had doubled, and it was no easier getting him off the device when time was up. It was clear we needed to set new time limits for him — and for me.
Now I play “Minecraft” with Max on the weekends. I still sit with him for the last 10 minutes or so of his weeknight time to help transition him back into real life and ease his anxiety about his screen time ending. Though it’s still hard for him to put down his device, I think having me there makes it easier.
Sometimes after putting Max to bed, I find myself forgoing the nightly doomscroll and logging into “Minecraft” to finish a build. I know what it feels like to live in a world that feels out of control. To be able to create a separate world of my own design — and temporarily disappear into it — is a great source of relief.
I understand why my neurodivergent son is addicted to “Minecraft,” but Max and I live in the real world, where shoes must be put on feet, clothes must be worn, and bodies must be fed. There’s no way to truly escape the realities of life.
Most of my days are spent helping Max come up with strategies to work on his executive-function skills and to help him succeed so he can see his full potential. But sometimes Max and I can leave all of that behind and fly together in a separate world— free of inhibitions.