As parents, we know that screens can be addictive. Tech companies admit as much. Last year, Netflix’s CEO said that his company was competing against … sleep. An early Facebook investor made headlines by saying, about social media, “it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other ... It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains.”

When it comes to screens, it’s important to realize that technology has benefits, as well as dangers. To protect your kids, follow these guidelines from experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Heart Association (AHA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Once you’ve reviewed these recommendations, you can decide if you want to set even stricter rules.

Younger than 18 months

Babies under 18 months should avoid all use of screen media (like tablets and phones) other than video-chatting, advises the AAP.

Ages 18 to 24 month

If you choose to introduce your kids to digital media, choose high-quality programming, and watch it with your children to help them understand what they're seeing, advises the AAP.

Time points out that because toddlers mimic older kids and parents, they’re bound to end up with a tablet or phone in their hand at some point and advise you to take the child onto your lap and talk to them about it. Let your child check out the device, then end the activity by saying something like the e-book is yours, and it’s time for the e-book to go to sleep. This allows toddlers to explore, but not independently, and only briefly.

Ages 2 to 5 years

Limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs that you’ve chosen, and view it with them to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them, advises the AAP.

Ages 6-18

The AHA reports that current estimates find that kids ages 6 -18 spend more than seven hours using screens daily — which is way too much. To rein in screen time:

  • Place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media and content. The AAP leaves this limit up to parents with this caveat: Make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. The AHA takes a more urgent stand, recommending that even for teens, recreational screen time be limited to one to two hours a day max.
  • Both organizations advise you to designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, especially bedrooms, as screens before bed disrupt sleep.
  • Have ongoing communication about behavior and safety, including the need to treat others with respect both online and offline, recommends the AAP.

Keep kids off social media until at least age 13, as required by the FTC’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, which protects kids under 13 from corporations collecting information about them. Despite these restrictions, millions of children under 13 have social media accounts — and often they’re not ready for them. A study in the U.K. found that as children go into middle school, they feel like they must be constantly connected or risk losing friends. Additionally, reports the study, “Many children are also conscious of keeping up appearances on social media, particularly when they start secondary school. Many talk about wanting to look like the people they see online, worrying about whether people would like their posts, and thinking about how to present their offline life so it looked good on social media.” So, it’s up to you to decide when your kids are ready for social media, and then encourage them to talk to you about any pressure or anxiety they feel.

When your kids begin socializing online, the FTC advises you to talk to them about:

  • Inappropriate contact. Explain to kids that some people online have bad intentions, including bullies, predators, hackers, and scammers — and talk about how they can protect themselves.
  • Inappropriate content. Talk to your kids about what inappropriate content is, like pornography, violence or hate speech online, and what to do.

Nearly three-quarters of teens play video games online or on their phone, reports the DHS. To keep kids safe while gaming, the DHS advises you to:

  • Keep your hardware up to date with the latest security software, web browser and operating system.
  • Keep your and your child’s full name, Social Security numbers, account numbers and passwords private. Also, don’t reveal specific information, such as your full name, address, birthday or vacation plans.
  • Turn off any geo-tagging functionality that can reveal your child’s location.
  • Do not allow children to use a web cam or voice chat when playing an online game.
  • Set strong passwords that are at least eight characters long and a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. You should know your children’s passwords.
  • Empower your children to handle problems. Many gaming systems allow players to interact with other people across the globe. Make sure your children know how to block or report a bully.

Also, be present with them while they play the games, at least the first time per game, so you can see what takes place and decide if it’s appropriate.

Be the Model
As a parent, you know that what you do matters at least as much as what you say. If you expect kids to follow rules about no screens in the bedroom, at dinner, etc., and to limit their screen time, then you must too.