Written by Dominic Ibarra Javonillo
At some point, most—if not all—individuals fidget. Fidgeting involves repetitive motions of moving about due to agitation, restlessness, and stress, reflecting one’s attentive state. Whether it is listening to long lectures, experiencing withdrawal from smoking, or awaiting important news, most individuals have experienced a state of anxiety and restlessness—a state that would lead to fidgeting. This nervous habit has strong associations with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and anxiety; these attentional and behavioral disorders are implicated by hyperactivity, high levels of arousal, and restlessness . In one study, Mohiyeddini and Semple found that displacement behavior (i.e fidgeting behavior) increased along with state anxiety—the uncomfortable experience—while it negatively correlated with self-reported stress levels . Indeed, fidgeting behaviors appear to regulate the experience of stress and one’s level of anxiety; how fortunate for toy companies to capitalize on an item that would alleviate consumers’ discomfort.
With over 41 million results on Google and about 10 million results on YouTube, fidget spinners have spun their way into the culture of 2017. Marketed as a “fidget toy” to dampen the effects of restlessness and excessive arousal, fidget spinners rely on their light weight and low-friction to set their mesmerizing spinning with a simple finger flick. They were meant to help individuals with ADHD, autism, and anxiety to reduce stress and enhance concentration. For example, Zekpro’s marketing spiel on Amazon claims their “Anti-Anxiety 360 Spinner” will improve concentration and reduce stress and anxiety . Unfortunately, the therapeutic nature of fidget spinners has evolved into gimmicky tricks, Internet humor, and popularity amidst social media within the younger demographic. Has the popularity of the fidget spinner proved beneficial for individuals with ADHD, autism, and anxiety? It seems that the craze may actually put those with these symptoms at a disadvantage in classrooms where these toys are banned and confiscated, therefore preventing individuals from focusing and treating their own symptoms of stress in school.
Across the United States, fidget spinners have become a distraction in the classroom and a nuisance for teachers and administrators alike. Many of the concerned individuals point to the popularity of fidget spinner tricks, games, and excessive noise as the source of students’ classroom misconduct with the device. As with any distracting toy, they are subject to confiscation for its misuse . This resistance against fidget spinners is not concentrated in the United States alone; some classrooms in the United Kingdom have also taken steps to ban its use while Irish and German Airport Customs have confiscated many due to insufficient levels of toy safety [5, 6, 7]. Unfortunately, by banning use of fidget toys, schools risk separating students with these mental conditions who depend on these devices to focus and concentrate. Without these toys in classrooms, those with ADHD, autism, or anxiety would not be able to treat their own symptoms to effectively pay attention to lectures. However, if schools allow special privileges for only those who require the toy’s therapeutic effect, it would be difficult to select and authorize those particular individuals due to the wide spectrum of stress and anxiety symptoms. Additionally, allowing these privileges would isolate those students from their peers and place them in an awkward position in the classroom environment where the stigma surrounding mental health still exists. This conflict has sparked feelings from both sides: those claiming fidget spinners to be a distraction and those praising its benefits. With such heated debates, it is crucial to understand its foundational assumption: do fidget spinners perform the proper therapy that is advertised? Are there quieter, less distracting therapeutic toys that produce similar effects?
As stated before, there is a relationship with increased displacement behaviors (i.e. fidgeting) and reduced stress levels. Although fidget spinners are advertised to increase concentration and attention, Farley et al. found that increased fidgeting appears to correlate with declining attention and retention of a sustained task (i.e. listening to a lecture) . Research suggests that this relationship reflects a mere correlation: fidgeting is a sign of stress, which makes a negative impact on retention. Unfortunately, while reducing stress and discomfort may maintain one’s attention level, there have not been many published research relating the use of fidget toys and their alleviation of stress. The marketing claims of fidget spinners may be from anecdotal testimonies that focusing one’s fidgeting into a single action may alleviate discomfort and stress.
Interestingly, fidget toys may qualify as a form of therapy for individuals with ADHD. A recent study showed that the excessive motor activity characteristic of ADHD symptoms may have compensatory effects in challenges to attention and alertness . Therefore, there may be a relationship between activity and motion in individuals with ADHD and its improving of cognitive performance . Indeed, there may be promise for fidget toys as a form of therapy for those with ADHD, but without further research to confirm its therapeutic use, anecdotal testimonies will have to drive the ongoing debate in classrooms.
In the case of fidget spinners, Dr. Katherine Isbister—a professor of Computational Media in the University of California, Santa Cruz—speculates that the requirement of visual concentration to balance the toy and the gimmick of spinner “tricks” is what draws individuals’ attention and focus away from the classroom . She concludes other therapeutic toys such as putty, stress balls, and fidget cubes may offer the same therapeutic effects as spinners without the problem of visual attention and high level of distraction . While studying fidgeting behavior, her research team hopes to design a therapeutic object that manages attention and induces a sense of calmness to the user . Indeed, fidget toys do have some level of therapy, but it takes a level of maturity and self-awareness to maintain one’s behavior and focus in situations that require it.
1. Sarver D.E., Rapport M.D., Kofler M.J., Raiker J.S., Friedman L. 2015. Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 43: 1219-32.
2. Mohiyeddini C., Semple S. 2013. Displacement Behavior regulates the experience of stress in men. The International Journal on the Biology of Stress. 16:163-71.
3. ZekPro. (n.d.). “The Official Anti-Anxiety 360 Spinner with EBOOK [Titanium Alloy] Helps Focusing and Spins Over 4 Min – Fidget Toys [3D Figit] for Kids Stress Reduce ADHD Anxiety Steel Bearing (Black & Blue). Retrieved July 3, 2017, from https://www.amazon.com/Official-Anti-Anxiety-Spinner-Titanium-Focusing/dp/B01N7T7FPY/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1499110710&sr=8-8&keywords=fidget+spinner
4. Tuttle, B. (2017, May 3). More schools are banning fidget spinners because they are ‘highly distracting’. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/money/4765188/fidget-spinners-ban-schools-classrooms-teachers/
5. McGregor, N. (2017, May 9). Spinners and the other toy crazes banned from schools. BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/39855894/spinners-and-the-other-toy-crazes-banned-from-schools
6. Fidget spinners seized by Irish customs over safety fears. (2017, May 26). BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40056425
7. Trautwein, K. (2017, June 16). German Customs officials seized 35 metric tons of fidget spinners in May. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4822533/frankfurt-airport-fidget-spinners/
8. Farley J, Risko E.F., Kingstone A. 2013. Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering. Frontiers in Psychology. 4:619.
9. Isbister K. (2017). Fidget toys aren’t just hype. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/fidget-toys-arent-just-hype-77456