The whirling toys are fun and popular, but there isn’t much scientific data to determine whether they’re helpful or harmful to children.
They’re small, they’re colorful, and they’re everywhere.
This spring, fidget spinners have taken the toy world by storm.
These petite ball bearing devices look like a cross between the head of an electric shaver and the blades of a standing fan.
Kids — even adults — can’t seem to leave home without them.
And manufacturers, who sometimes can’t keep up with the demand for these whirling playthings, are happily watching the world spin itself into a tizzy.
But besides keeping idle hands busy, and parents’ pocketbooks empty, are there any real benefits to these gadgets?
Fidgeting is a series of behaviors people exhibit while they’re doing anything from sitting and reading to talking on stage to a large audience.
It’s a way a lot of people expend nervousness or energy.
That’s why some fidget spinner makers say their toys can be an antidote to fidgeting children with attention disorders.
Likewise, these claims suggest children with anxiety and autism may find some relief with the repetitive motion of the toy.
Cppslee, a fidget spinner seller on Amazon, writes its products are “ideal for people trying to quit nail biting, smoking, leg shaking, and all types of attention disorder issues.”
There may be something to this occupied fidgeting notion.
A 2009 study found that people who write notes longhand — during classes, conferences, or presentations, for example — perform better than students who just type notes on a laptop. Students who took notes on laptops could record more information, but students who wrote notes were able to process the information better.
Likewise, doodling during a lecture or while performing another task may help you recall more information later. Another 2009 study found that people who doodled during a lengthy, boring telephone message recalled 29 percent more information than people who didn’t doodle.
Is this enough to support claims that fidget spinners can help with attention and anxiety?
Not so fast, said Dr. John L. Bender, a family physician in Colorado, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
“They certainly are not FDA approved for such indications, and so as a medical doctor, I would not be able to prescribe them in my medical practice as a therapy,” Bender, who also works with two psychologists in his practice, told Healthline. “It would not be proper to claim that there was a level of evidence comparable to a full scientific study to base such a claim.”
Bender added, however, that there also isn’t any evidence to the contrary.
“In fairness to the manufacturers, I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that they’re harmful either, so if a parent were to ask me if it’s OK for their child to use them, then my comment would be that I don’t know if it’s helpful or harmful,” he said.
Well-researched scientific data on the benefits or downsides of any type of treatment takes years, even decades, to compile.
By then, the world may have moved on to another gadget.
Fidgeting is not necessarily good or bad — until it starts interfering with your ability to accomplish tasks, or you begin interrupting the people around you.
That’s precisely the issue for many teachers across the country.
As soon as any toy makes its way into students’ hands, teachers across the country will soon be facing a decision.
Some teachers, schools, and education systems have banned fidget spinners.
Others, like special education professional Rebekah Poe from Alabama, take a more nuanced approach.
“I have one student I allow to use a fidget spinner. I actually bought it for him myself,” Poe told Healthline. “He has severe ADHD and behavior problems that prevent him from attending classes in the general classroom. He has a really hard time sitting still long enough to participate in our lessons, but with the fidget spinner, he was able to have an outlet for some of that extra energy without causing a disruption to the other classmates. The first day he used it, I was in awe. He sat quietly. He listened. He participated. All the while, that fidget spinner was going nonstop.”
And the other students?
At first they were jealous. A toy, as they saw this new contraption, should be for everyone.
“I explained that the spinner was not a toy. I said the student who was using it needed it to help him pay attention,” Poe explained.
After a few days, the “newness” of the spinner wore off. The other students didn’t seem interested in it anymore. In fact, they eventually realized the importance of it for their fellow classmate.
“They would even notice that student start losing self-control and say, ‘Mrs. Poe, J needs his spinner,’” she said. “They understood that it was not a toy.”
Lizzie Miller, a 25-year-old marketing manager from Chicago, uses fidget spinners in her professional environment.
Miller said she always needs to do something with her hands while she works, and fidget spinners help answer that need.
“I have a hard time staying focused because I feel like I always need to be doing something with my hands,” Miller told Healthline. “That often distracts me and I focus on what I’m doing with them, like messing with my cuticles or spinning my phone. I like it because I am able to keep both hands preoccupied so I am not doing other things to distract me.”
For the majority of children, a fidget spinner is just a toy.
The twisting, twirling piece of plastic is a way to occupy their hands, but it’s likely doing little to occupy their minds or shape behaviors.
For children — or even adults — with attention deficit, anxiety, or developmental disorders like autism, the spinners may be helpful, but don’t expect miracles, Bender said.
“If you feel it’s giving them some benefits, it’s probably OK,” Bender said. “I certainly wouldn’t start putting them in my waiting room or promoting them based on the evidence that’s available today however.”
“Compared to a sedative or even other modes of intervention, fidget spinners are not terribly noisy,” Bender continued. “They make some now with lights, so that might be distracting, but for the most part, they’re quiet and not too terribly distracting to the people around them. It’s minimally interruptive to others around them as opposed to other interventions, such as playing music. Medications would have other potential side effects, such as sedation or impairing judgment and reflex coordination.”
If you sense the fidget spinner is distracting your child more than it’s helping, you’re probably right. In that case, you may want to limit your child’s access, especially in structured places like a classroom.
“I would encourage parents to think about the needs of their child before letting him or her carry one to school,” Poe said. “If there is not a legitimate behavioral concern that a fidget spinner might help solve, do not bring it to school.”
If your child seems to show behavioral changes when they use a fidget spinner at home, you may be interested to see if it’ll improve performance at school. That, Poe said, is possible, but talk with the teacher before sending the toy.
“The teacher is your teammate and wants what is best for your child just as much as you do. If you truly feel that using one would help your child, talk to his or her teacher and express your concerns,” she said.