DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, see if you can recognize this sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MINECRAFT")
GREENE: If you got it, I bet you are or you're the parent of a "Minecraft" lover. "Minecraft" is this mega-popular computer game. Players enter a world full of blocks and build anything they want - houses, mountains, boats, farms. Kids will play it for hours when they could be, say, out enjoying a long summer day. And this had Sarah Jane Tribble from member station WCPN wondering, is "Minecraft" good for kids?
SARAH JANE TRIBBLE, BYLINE: So it's family vacation time, and I've taken the kids back to where I grew up on a small plot of land off a dirt road in Kansas. For my city kids, this is supposed to be heaven. There are freshly laid chicken eggs to gather, new kittens to play with and miles of pasture to explore. But we're not outside.
DAVYEN: Did you get a pickaxe?
GAVIN: Oh, no. I should.
DAVYEN: Yeah, you should.
GAVIN: Don't worry. I will. What the?
TRIBBLE: I am sitting in my childhood bedroom watching my 7-year-old son and his 11-year-old cousin staring at a screen. The older is teaching the younger the secrets of one of the most popular games on Earth.
DAVYEN: You need a wooden pickaxe to get stone, and you need a stone pickaxe to get iron, and you need an iron pickaxe to get gold. And you also need...
TRIBBLE: OK, let's pause here. I am a health reporter, which means I'm more aware than anybody should be about the many rules of raising a healthy, well-adjusted child. So their screen time, definitely monitored and limited. We take pains to stick to the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations. For kids under 2, that means no screen time. For kids 2 and above like mine, they recommend less than one or two hours per day. But this is "Minecraft." My son's addiction is acute, and he's got plenty of company.
Illinois-based graphic novelist Chris Ware was so taken aback by his 10-year-old daughter's interest that it was his inspiration for a recent New Yorker cover.
CHRIS WARE: It's pretty amazing how it seems to have almost completely usurp the consciousnesses of the 6- to-14-year-old set.
TRIBBLE: Ware's drawing has two children, backs to each other, staring at screens while ignoring the toys littered about them. Ware drew it to signify his fascination.
WARE: My daughter made all these series of underground classrooms, which I thought was such a strange idea, you know.
TRIBBLE: This is no "Grand Theft Auto" with guns and violence. Schools and camps use "Minecraft" to teach basic spatial reasoning concepts, albeit with some odd characters.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: When you just put a bunch of lava to kill the pig...
TRIBBLE: Before taking vacation, I caught Mel McGee during a coding camp she runs. She was explaining to a handful of preteens how to use red stone dust to make electrical wire.
MEL MCGEE: So we try to drop some engineering stuff, you know, real-world concepts in there and how it relates to what they're building in "Minecraft."
TRIBBLE: So if you're using it for good, does it count as screen time? To get some answers, I called Dr. Vic Strasburger. He helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations 15 years ago.
VIC STRASBURGER: We're not a bunch of old fuddy-duddies sitting around trying to figure out how we can poke a hole in kids' entertainment options.
TRIBBLE: Research has established that kids who sit in front of a TV or a video for hours have higher rates of obesity and possibly many other health problems. But Strasburger says it's more complicated than just setting strict time limits. The academy has no set recommendations on educational screen time or even the use of different types of screens.
STRASBURGER: We don't know about iPads, cellphones, smartphones, new technology because there isn't the research. The academy re-reviews its policy statements routinely. So if there were new research out there, we would be the first to be talking about it. But there ain't.
TRIBBLE: His advice to parents is to create their own family policies.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MINECRAFT")
TRIBBLE: Back in my childhood bedroom, I'm watching and trying to figure out what our policy should be. My boy's virtual person has moved past a pig and is now gathering sugar cane for reasons I am only beginning to understand.
DAVYEN: I think you're pretty good on sugar cane.
GAVIN: Just got some more.
DAVYEN: Oh, and dude, you should start a sugar cane farm.
GAVIN: OK, I think I can.
DAVYEN: Yeah, you have to be by water.
TRIBBLE: The obvious irony here is they don't actually have to build any farm. They can just walk outside and be part of a real one. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Jane Tribble.
GREENE: That story was part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WCPN and Kaiser Health News.
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