You’ve probably seen the kid spinning a thing that looks like a miniature alien spaceship on his thumb and wondered what that was all about. Or maybe you’ve noticed a co-worker secretly fiddling with a cube with buttons on it under the conference table.
These odd-shaped, oddly addictive objects — designed to let you channel extra energy into your fingers as you go about your day — are fidgets. And all of a sudden, it seems, they’re everywhere.
Marketers compare the new obsession with Pokémon Go or the hula hoops of generations past, but a whole scientific mythology is emerging that makes them much more than a simple toy. It has to do with the idea that spinning, tapping, clicking, squeezing and bending may be able to increase your focus, relieve stress and alleviate symptoms like anxiety.
“They can be very engaging,” says Katherine Isbister, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who is studying the phenomenon. “There’s a certain kinesthetic characteristic that makes them feel good in the hand.”
Some people swear by them, especially when it comes to helping them get through boring or unpleasant tasks. Moms have been known to buy them by the bag to keep their kids occupied while running errands. But the fidgets, especially the spinny kind, are also driving a lot of other people crazy.
The basic three-pronged version, which can be found for about $5 to $7 at local toy stores and for less online, is held in between your thumb and index finger. You spin and then let go of one finger so that the fidget balances on the other. These come in every color of the rainbow and then some — camo, tie-dye and, for anyone wanting some bling, rose gold.
Hundreds of schools across the country have reportedly banned fidgets. Administrators at MS 442 in Brooklyn wrote in a recent Facebook post that “although seeming harmless,” they can pull student and staff attention away from class and can even be dangerous if thrown. Cristina Bolusi Zawacki, a sixth-grade English teacher, referred to them as “helicopters of distraction” in a blog post that went viral.
“Trust me … fidget spinners are the effing worst,” she wrote.
And just this week, a parent in Texas warned others via Facebook that the gadgets can come apart and pose a choking hazard. Her 10-year-old had swallowed one of the bearings and had to be taken to the hospital, she said.
Isbister believes that America’s love-hate relationship with fidgets may reflect how human beings have always been creatures who occupied our days by doing things with our hands. We’ve carved arrows out of sticks, tilled soil for crops, built automobiles. But technology has phased out much hands-on work in recent decades.
At the same time, the more scientists look into physical activity, the more they are learning that the ways we move our bodies impact neurological functioning. Some theorize that all of us have an optimal state of being when we are able to learn, create or perform at our best. This is why mindfulness meditation may be so in vogue and why “brain breaks” — stretching, jumping around or other types of exercise — in between periods of desk-work are now a regular part of the school day in parts of the country.
Could it be, Isbister wondered, that we fidget because we have taken away the “interesting tactile experiences” of our world as we shift more to using digital devices?
Isbister and her collaborator, Michael Karlesky, have been soliciting examples of things people fidget with in a Tumblr. Contributors report the usual, like hair and paper clips, but there are also some unusual fidgets, including a piece of painted concrete someone picked up.
There’s little actual science on the gadgets now on the market. But the theories behind why they might help you and your children do your work are intriguing and related to that broader area of study about the effect of physical movement on neurological functioning.
One of the only controlled studies on fidgeting involved children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The 2015 study, published in Child Neuropsychology, looked at 44 school-age boys and girls. Twenty-six had ADHD, and 18 did not.
For kids without ADHD, fidgeting didn’t seem to impact performance positively or negatively on a cognitive test. But for those with the disorder, the study showed that the fidgeting appeared to be linked with cognitive performance. The more the children fidgeted, the more accurate their answers. The more they were still, the more answers they got wrong.
Julie Schweitzer, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at the University of California at Davis, theorized that moving a lot may actually be beneficial for those children with ADHD, which is why they do it. Hyperactivity may be for them “a mechanism for cognitive self-regulation,” she wrote.
In a paper Isbister and Karlesky presented at a 2014 conference, they described the concept of a “physical margin space surrounding digital workspaces in which users often physically perform elements of their thinking in the form of doodling, fiddling, and fidgeting.” They said that “fidget widgets,” as they call them, may help “shape cognitive state to support a user’s productivity and creativity in their primary tasks.”
The work of University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who studies attention, distraction and boredom, provides some of the theoretical foundation for Isbister and Karlesky’s hypothesis.
Lleras explains that fidgeting could be a way of modulating people’s arousal or engagement in an activity. But the relationship isn’t linear; rather, it goes in kind of an inverted U shape. What that means is that an individual may be able to use fidgeting (with a fidget device or not) to get themselves to a certain level of arousal or engagement that’s good to increase their performance. But at some point too much fidgeting can become a liability, which is when performance goes down.
“When you are perfectly matched to the environment and stimulated in the right way, you can do things for hours, like professional athletes,” he says.
Lleras himself fidgets. Many years ago, he says, he saw someone flicking their pen along their thumb so it spun. He thought it was cool and decided to start doing it. He noticed he would do it more during lectures or meetings where he really needed to concentrate hard. “It would make things more interesting,” he recalled.
He recently purchased his two elementary-age children fidget spinners. However, Lleras says, “I have absolutely no hope it’s going to help them concentrate better. I don’t see them interacting with them in a way that would be a real fidget device for homework or in class. For them, it's just a fun toy.”