Fidgeting May (or May Not) Be Good For You

Kim BellardI swore I wasn't going to write about fidget spinners.  Just a toy, just be the latest fad -- the Rubik's cube of this generation, or perhaps the Pokémon Go of this year -- with no broader implications, for health care or anything else.  Yet here I am, writing about them after all.

If you know any children, you already know what a fidget spinner is.  You may even have one yourself.  They seem to be everywhere lately, even in the hands of President Trump's youngest son as he exited Marine One recently.

What that says about us is not quite clear.

Although they generally share the same three-prong shape (there's also a newer variation, a fidget cube), fidget spinners come in all colors and prices -- one writer listed some 62 variations. They can range in price from a cheap as a dollar to several hundred dollars.  

You can even turn your mobile phone into one, if you really want to. Or get the app.  

CNN reported that fidget spinners accounted for the top 15 most popular toys on Amazon, and fidget toys and fidget cubes combined accounted for 49 of the top 50 spots. If you don't get their appeal and think they're just silly, well, kids probably don't think you're cool anyway.

One of the early rationale for fidget spinners was for children with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). The theory was that they allowed them to focus better by giving an outlet for their extra energy. Their benefits supposedly also applied to adults with a wider range of mental health concerns, such as PTSD or anxiety.  

Unfortunately, the basis for any of these claims appears dubious. There is some research that gross motor activity did help improve working memory for children with ADHD, but it was not focused on fidget spinners and using them probably would not qualify as gross motor activity. Clinical psychologist Scott Kollins warned NPR: "It's important that people don't get into trying these fads when we do have treatments that can help these kids."

Credit - Robert Couse-Baker CC-BY 2.0And, while ADHD diagnoses have exploded (which some have blamed on Big Phama's desire to sell more drugs), most of those children you see with fidget spinners almost certainly don't have ADHD. They just like to play with it. 

The notion that fidget spinners are good for kids, or at least benign, is increasingly coming under attack. Schools in at least 11 states have banned them, claiming they are at least distracting and possibly dangerous. Imagine teachers trying to get kids focused on math while they are spinning away (and the rest of the class is texting under their desks), and the bans make a lot of sense.

Even worse, there are warnings about fidget spinners being a choking danger, a possible source of internal bleeding (due to the batteries), even a risk for lead poisoning. Who knew they might be so hazardous?

Alex Williams, writing for The New York Times, has a different theory. Mr. Williams argues that, while we once might have been the "Prozac Nation," suffering from depression, we now are the "United States of Xanax." In other words, as social media consultant Sarah Fader told him: "If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you.”

He notes that as many as 38% of girls 13-17, and 26% of boys, have an anxiety disorder, and that anxiety far outpaces depression on college campuses.  

This should not come as a surprise. After all, since 9/11, the 21st century has seen a never-ending threat of terrorism, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, widening wealth inequality, and hyper-partisan politics the likes of which we may have never seen before. To not be anxious seems like not paying attention.

Mr. Williams cites the fidget spinner "as a perfect metaphor for the overscheduled, overstimulated children of today as they search for a way to unplug between jujitsu lessons, clarinet practice and Advanced Placement tutoring." A mindless activity like them has great appeal. 

Credit- Fidget Hand Spinner Circle CC-BY 2.0He also references another new source of anxiety: #FOMO, or fear of missing out. We have to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, texts. Staying connected can be an overwhelming, 24/7 task. Our obsession with -- one could say addiction to -- our smartphones shows how we constantly have to be busy with something.

No wonder it isn't just children who are playing with them anymore.

There's nothing inherently wrong with fidgeting. The Washington Post interviewed Katherine Isbister, a professor at University of California Santa Cruz, who is studying the fidget spinner craze.

Dr. Isbister told the Post that we evolved doing things with our hands, but modern life affords us less opportunities to do many of them. She speculates that our digital devices rob us of the kind of "interesting tactile experiences" that fidget spinners provide.

Professor Isbister and her collaborator Michael Karlesky believe that fidget spinners "may shape cognitive state to support a user’s productivity and creativity in their primary tasks."  OK, then. They're collecting other examples of how and with what people fidget (and finding some interesting items!).

Fidget spinners may not have broader implications for health care, as I've previously speculated that other seemingly unrelated things like e-SportsPokémon Go, or Snap's Spectacles might. They might not tell us anything more about the times we may live in than hula hoops told us about McCarthyism or the Cold Way did about the 1950's. They may just, indeed, be a passing fad.

I think I still want one, though.  How about you?

Fidgeting May (or May Not) Be Good For You was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.