By: Phoenix Grubbs
January 25th, 2022
This article is part of our Fall 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Ever since the fidget spinner craze of 2017, fidget toys have been on the rise. Fidget toys can be any handheld toy someone uses to focus or destress. Their popularity resurged during the pandemic due to social media trends, and more and more people are discovering how helpful fidgeting can be.
Spinners were first invented by Scott McCoskery in 2013. He wanted to focus during long, work-related events, and thus he created the Torqbar, a metal toy with two prongs that could be spun when held in the middle. After the Torqbar was released to the public in 2015, lots of third-party companies began making cheap knockoffs of the toy. To get ahead of the competition, McCoskery added a third prong to his design in 2016 and switched to using hard plastic. This updated design became known as the fidget spinner.
In 2017, fidget spinners were all the rage thanks to online videos, social media and local news stations sharing the fun, simple spinners. They were so popular they made Amazon’s top 20 best-selling toys list. They were also marketed to students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to help them concentrate in class. However, the fad led to more distraction in the classroom, and many schools banned students from fidgeting with them in class, which made the craze fade out.
However, with COVID-19, the demand for destressing sensory devices rose once again. New toys flooded the market:tangles that can be endlessly twisted around, squeezable peapods, magnets, stress balls and more in an expansive array of colors, shapes and designs.
One popular new item is the Pop It, a silicone mat with dimples that can be popped in and back out again, like endless bubble wrap. Pop Its became popular after a viral TikTok showed a capuchin monkey playing with one, which started a trend of people vying for the previously unknown toy. Now, Pop Its and their knockoffs can be found everywhere, from toy shops to grocery stores and beyond.
One reason behind the rise of fidget toys may be the benefits of fidgeting. “My research group has taken a deep look at how people use fidget items over the last several years,” said Kathrine Isbister, a UC Santa Cruz School of Engineering computational media professor, in her article “Fidget Toys Aren’t Just Hype” for Scientific American. “What we found tells us that these items are not a fad that will soon disappear.”
“Fidgeting didn’t start with the spinner craze,” Isbister said. “If you’ve ever clicked a ballpoint pen again and again, you’ve used a fidget item.” Many people fidget without even realizing it. Some people tap their feet, some click their pens and some fiddle with paper clips.
People with ADHD or those on the autism spectrum often struggle with under or overstimulation. “Psychology research about sensation seeking tells us that people often seek to adjust their experiences and their environments so that they provide just the right level of stimulation,” Isbister said.
This means that people whose brains are wired differently may require more or less stimulation to focus in certain situations. Fidget toys can provide them with the kind of stimulation they need at that time. Even if someone is neurotypical, fidget toys may help them relieve stress when other methods of calming themselves down aren’t available, especially during the high amount of stress many have experienced due to COVID.
However, there hasn’t yet been a full study done to show how much fidget toys help. “The closest significant research is UC Davis behavioral science professor Julie Schweitzer’s study of letting children with ADHD fidget–wriggling, bouncing or otherwise moving gently in place–while they worked on a lab-based concentration task called the ‘flanker paradigm,’” Isbister said. “[Scweitzer] found that more overall movement (measured using an accelerometer on the ankle) in children with ADHD did help them perform this cognitively demanding task.”
Isbister’s group found evidence to back up anecdotal reports of fidget toys helping people focus, yet that doesn’t mean schools were wrong to ban fidget spinners. “Not all fidget items are created equal,” she said. “The items that therapists recommend are primarily tactile–a user holds it in a hand and can manipulate it without looking. But fidget spinners require hand-eye coordination.” This makes using a fidget spinner during class much more distracting because the device necessitates taking attention away from learning.
“By contrast, putty, stress balls and other therapeutic fidget items don’t have this visual attention problem,” Isbister said. “They can serve the same purpose as the spinners, but are more classroom-ready and less distracting.” Some fidget toys, such as the Fidget Cube, can also make less noise while being played with. This also reduces distraction in the classroom.
“There’s still science to be done, but they’re not just a fad,” said Isbister. “They embody an enduring phenomenon that nearly everyone uses at some point–just watch your own behavior when doing desk work or sitting in meetings. My research team continues to study fidgeting behavior and design, working to create next-generation smart fidget objects that support managing attention and keeping calm.”
Phoenix Grubbs is a senior double-majoring in English with a creative writing focus and Professional and Public Writing. They are an aspiring author and copyeditor, and they adore all things fantasy and sci-fi.