How to Help JIA Kids Cut Back on Screen Time

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

Prying a digital device from a child, tween, or teen’s hands is tough during the best of times—and the pandemic has only upped sedentary, daily screen time with remote learning. If you have a child with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), this can be a big concern, since swapping screens for real activity isn’t just about IRL engagement but can also relieve aching joints (and make a huge difference when it comes to disease progression, too). Here’s why moving more helps JIA kids, with some age-appropriate tips for inspiring them to step away from their screens.

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Joints Need to Be Used

For symptoms of JIA—such as joint stiffness, pain, swelling, and limited range of motion—maybe it seems that sitting still is the best bet. Not so, says Amir Orandi, M.D., pediatric rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Parents can sometime assume that their child needs to be resting and shouldn’t try to move the joint in fear of hurting them, but that’s the [exact] opposite of what we advise families,” he says. “Instead, we say as much as possible, we want you to use the joints in the manner that they were intended.”

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Inactivity Can Hurt, Not Help

Being sedentary, even for short periods of time, doesn’t give your joints the chance to operate like they’re supposed to, which can exacerbate stiffness and pain and even lead to bone-thinning and muscle weakness, says Dr. Orandi. “We see this all the time when doing X-rays, where if a child has arthritis on one wrist, the bones will appear thin compared to the other side because they’re not using it. We’ll also see evidence of regional muscle atrophy in knee inflammation, for example, where they’re not able to use the joint,” he adds.

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Make Moving a Family Affair

As if the physical aspects of JIA aren’t challenging enough, it can also make kids—no matter what their age—feel singled out if they’re the only person being tasked with special exercises that they—and only they—have to do. “Build an activity into your family lifestyle so it becomes a fun thing the affected child does with everybody,” suggests Dr. Orandi. Start new traditions with your family to get everyone moving—a bike ride after dinner, maybe, a Saturday morning hike, or a trip to the park with the dog for some playtime.

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When In Doubt, Distract

One of the most common child-rearing techniques? Good ‘ole distraction. And it can work wonders for decreasing screen time. Lure your kid from a laptop, iPhone, or video game by agreeing to join them in a game of basketball so you’re saying “yes” instead of “no,” says Stephanie Block, program director of the Arthritis Foundation’s Camp MASH (Make Arthritis Stop Hurting) in Middelton, WI. Create an activity jar of favorite activities for low-, medium-, and high-energy days to help you direct your child toward something they want to do, rather than imposing a restriction.

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It’s Not About Equipment

If you want your child to move more, try being creative. Turn your living room into a personal playground, Block suggests. “Moving more doesn’t have to entail a lot of heavy equipment or a particular gym,” she says. “Anything that entails movement counts.” So, set up a scavenger hunt around the house, or help your younger kids build a cool fort. Tweens and teens love loud music and a dance party—and then you can film some TikTok moves together. Or, simply cook dinner as a family—anything that gets everyone off their feet counts.

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Build in Daily Exercise

Living with JIA can sometimes feel like you’re living with a constant to-do list. That’s why Dr. Orandi suggests implementing exercise into a normal part of your day rather than making it a separate “gotta work out” item. “I like to find activities that my patients can incorporate into their lives, whether it’s playing with siblings or walking a pet for 30 minutes a day, or household chores like mowing the lawn, rather than another chore that the doctor is telling them to do for their arthritis,” he says.

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Write It Out

Getting active doesn’t have to mean heavy-duty exercise. Taking time to learn the guitar, or painting and writing can exercise both the mind and body in different ways—keeping joints like wrists moving, for example. “Coloring can be good for anxiety and focus, and writing down your feelings, all of those activities are just as important for helping those with juvenile arthritis,” says Block. Bullet journals are great because they help JIA kids keep their thoughts organized, and track medications and symptoms.

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Make No-Screen Days Movement Days

Part of the screen time “problem” is that it’s simply become a mindless habit. So, flip the script and shake up your routine while leading by example (that means no more mindless Facebook scrolling for you, either, Mom and Dad). Aim for an entire screen-free day each weekend (unless homework interferes, of course), or go off-line after dinner each night for a set period of time so that it becomes a new family tradition, suggests Block. Now, build some activity (a walk around the block or tossing a ball in the backyard) into that timeframe instead.

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Free Your Joints

In addition to generally moving more, it’s recommended to stretch your joints in a variety of ways to maintain mobility. One method that works every joint in your body was designed specifically for JIA kids. It’s call the Joint Freeing Series, and it consists of 21 movements done in one fluid series, beginning with your feet, then moving up to your neck. It helps those with JIA to become more aware of body positioning and conserve energy from mobility limitations. You can do it at home with your family (all you need is a chair and a mat) with this YouTube video developed by JIA specialists.

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Don’t Overthink It

The best advice, says Dr. Orandi, is to encourage—and not to limit—your JIA’s kids physical activity, as long as your child’s symptoms are in check, and he or she is not experiencing pain. “After the inflammation is under control, and even with a higher disease burden, we want them to find ways to be as active as possible,” he advises. So, you know what that means: It’s time to tell your kids, “Screens down, sneakers on!” Their JIA will thank you for it.

Meet Our Writer
Megan McMorris