Do your kids carry their Nintendo Switches everywhere or lock eyes on their smartphone screens at every opportunity? Are you concerned that they’re spending too much time playing video games on electronic devices?

Experts appear divided on whether so-called gaming disorder is a true mental health condition or simply garden-variety annoying child and teen behavior.

Whatever the label, there’s little disagreement among parents that many children spend far too much time glued to their smartphones and other electronic devices.

Benjamin Shain, M.D., Ph.D., head of child and adolescent psychiatry at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago, says that from what he has seen in his practice, video game addiction is a distinct problem. “There are kids who can’t survive, in their mind, without gaming,” Shain says, “leading to them using up their free time, homework time.”

The potential health risks of excessive screen time in children captured headlines recently, thanks to two developments: The World Health Organization, a United Nations agency that focuses on global health, announced that it would classify gaming disorder as a distinct condition, and some big investors in Apple have begun pushing the tech company to offer parents more robust ways to control their kids’ screen time.  

Apple responded in a written statement that it has parental controls built into its iPhone operating systems. The company also said it has more robust parental control features in the works. “Effectively anything a child could download or access online can be easily blocked or restricted by a parent,” says part of the statement. 

And though the long-term effects of excessive gaming are unclear, research suggests that screen time at night may negatively affect sleep quality and amount. In addition, an analysis published in 2016 in the journal Pediatrics notes that early-in-life media use may contribute to poorer impulse control and mental inflexibility and that households where screens are used more heavily may communicate and function less well than other households.

Diagnoses aside, what many parents probably want to know is how much digital device use—whether a smartphone, tablet, console, or computer­—is unhealthy and what they can do to best monitor and limit youngsters’ game time.

Consumer Reports talked to experts and looked over the latest research to help parents know what’s normal, what’s a problem—and how to manage kids’ use of electronic devices and media. Here’s the lowdown.

The Signs for Parents

Using technology itself isn’t problematic, according to Daria Kuss, Ph.D., senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. and a member of the WHO expert panel that evaluated the evidence about gaming disorder.

“The internet and gaming have become integral components of our everyday lives, including the lives of kids,” she says. “Use becomes too much if it significantly interferes with daily life tasks, such as academic achievement and maintaining social contacts outside of the internet or games.”

As Allen Frances, M.D., professor emeritus and former chair of psychiatry at Duke University, points out, “There are an enormous number of gamers who spend a great deal of time participating without clinically significant distress or impairment.”

But “there are a small number of gamers who are so compulsive about the activity that it’s life-ruining, even life-threatening,” says Frances, who is also chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition Task Force (the DSM lists diagnostic codes for mental health disorders in the U.S.).

Here in the U.S., gaming disorder is not considered a mental health condition by the DSM. (The most current version, the DSM-5, mentions “internet gaming disorder” and notes that more study on the topic is needed.) But inclusion in the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases-11 later this year will allow U.S. doctors to bill insurance companies for treatment of the condition.

So how can you tell if your child may have a serious problem with use of electronics?

Some key signs include slipping grades, missing sleep, and spending less time socializing with friends. Teens may sometimes express that they wish they played less but feel like they can’t stop, says Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida.

If you notice one or more of these signs, bring it up with your pediatrician so that he or she can help figure out whether your child needs further evaluation by a mental health professional, experts say.

Your child may be even experiencing emotional distress due to an unrecognized condition, and experts like Ferguson think it may be more accurate to think of excessive gaming as a symptom of something else. He’s concerned that treating someone specifically for video game addiction could cause a problem such as depression or anxiety to go unaddressed.

Michael Rich, M.D., director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health—which works with children who overdo gaming or overuse the internet—thinks the latest technologies have led to new manifestations of established conditions. “We have yet to see patients who do not have an underlying known psychiatric disorder,” Rich says.

What Can Parents Do?

If you’re unsure how much gaming is appropriate for youngsters and teens, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines on digital media use, including television. You can also check the AAP’s online media time calculator to create a media plan for your family.

The AAP advises against allowing children younger than 18 months to use digital media at all, other than video chatting—with an out-of-town relative, for instance. Between 18 and 24 months, parents should choose high-quality children’s media, such as public television offerings, and watch with kids, to help them understand what they’re seeing and hearing.

For children between ages 2 and 5, the AAP recommends limiting screen time to an hour a day.

For youngsters 6 and older, including adolescents, the group advises setting consistent boundaries on how much and what type of media use is allowed, and designating media-free times and places.

For this age group, health experts may be reluctant to offer a specific number of hours as the limit. Partly, Shain says, that’s because existing research isn’t clear on what that number may be. (And not every minute of screen use can be counted as a negative. As the AAP points out, digital media can help students learn and collaborate on homework, and kids who feel excluded at school may find welcoming communities online.)

But research suggests that it’s appropriate to come up with an amount that’s right for your family and to talk about gaming with youngsters in this age group. A 2014 study in JAMA Pediatrics found that children whose parents set time and content limits on screen time and engaged their kids in discussions about the media they used got more sleep, earned better grades, and interacted more positively with their peers. Playing with them can also be useful, Kuss says.

The AAP recommends setting other rules, such as no screens during meals, having youngsters stop playing 30 minutes before bed, and removing devices from kids’ bedrooms when they go to sleep. In addition, keep entertainment and homework time separate—even if homework involves a computer. Make sure babysitters, grandparents, and other caretakers know the rules, too, so that they’re consistently enforced.

And ensure that time gets spent on activities other than gaming—for instance, children and adolescents should have at least an hour of physical activity every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Be conscious of your own media use as well, Rich says. “We need to model for them behaviors that we want to see in them.”