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Earlier this year, fidget spinners claimed their place as the hot new fad of 2017. Some people, however, claim that fidget toys could help people manage symptoms of anxiety and ADHD.
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Sources:
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09297049.2015.1044511
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fidget-toys-arent-just-hype/
http://time.com/money/4774133/fidget-spinners-adhd-anxiety-stress/
http://www.npr.org/2017/05/14/527988954/whirring-purring-fidget-spinners-provide-entertainment-not-adhd-help
https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ853381
https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/stress-toys-focus-work/398453/
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10802-015-0011-1#/page-1
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Clicking your pen, tapping your feet— if you’ve ever had a boring class or long project, you’ve probably been guilty of fidgeting. Now, there are lots of fidget toys for you to push buttons, move joysticks, and take your absentminded motions to the next level.

And the latest craze is fidget spinners. It seems like these things multiplied overnight, and now every elementary and middle school student you know seems to have one. Sure, fidget spinners might be fun for kids, but there are also claims that toys like it can actually increase focus in people with conditions like ADHD and can ease anxiety symptoms.

But is there any truth to that? Well, we actually aren’t sure. There’s some evidence they could be helpful, but we still have a lot to figure out.

Psychology research suggests that the amount of sensory stimulation we need tends to vary from person to person— which is why you might love listening to music when you study but your roommate needs complete silence. People with conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, commonly report that they need more frequent stimulation, which can take different forms like touch or movement. But that isn’t always easy to get in classrooms or offices.

So the basic idea behind fidget toys is that you can regulate your own levels of certain kinds of stimulation, which could make it easier for your brain to focus on the main thing you’re trying to do. And in people with anxiety, fidget toys could also possibly help occupy parts of your brain to prevent you from getting wrapped up in those worried or obsessive thoughts. Okay, so that all sounds great.

But the problem is: there just isn’t that much peer-reviewed research on fidget toys. A lot people say they’re helpful for all sorts of things, including psychological disorders, but we’ll need more research to confirm that before we say anything for sure. There’s been some research on people doing multiple tasks to help them pay attention.

For instance, a study in 2009 published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology tested whether doodling helped with memory. It only involved 40 participants, which is kind of small, but the study had interesting results. The researcher had all the participants listen to a voice message about a party invitation and take notes about who was coming.

Half of them were asked to shade in squares and circles on a piece of paper while they were listening, while the other half just sat there. And the ones that were doodling remembered people and place names— which they weren’t asked to remember beforehand—slightly better than the non-doodlers! The researcher suggested that scribbling on paper could help people keep their sensory stimulation at a good level.

And because drawing is different than listening, it’s not competing for the brainspace that they need to process words in the voice message. Another idea is that doodling might help people expend a little brain effort so they don’t start daydreaming, which is a big distraction, and can keep paying attention to the main thing they’re trying to do. Multiple studies have also shown that moving around, like with foot-jiggling, can increase focus in people with attention disorders.

And there’s been a little bit of research involving fidgeting with objects. There was one study in 2006 from the Journal of At-Risk Issues that looked at stress balls, and they found that using them increased focus and work quality in sixth graders. The study even lasted seven weeks, which means the results probably weren’t caused by novelty— after two months, the shiny-ness of squeezing a stress ball kind of wears off.

But this study was also pretty small, with only 29 participants, and it wasn’t directly related to attention disorders:. Only 1 of the 29 students had been diagnosed with ADHD. So it seems like fidget toys could have the same effect, but no one’s really investigated them specifically.

Many psychologists also point out that fidget spinners are a lot different than stress balls or putty, which therapists sometimes recommend. These fidget items are only designed to be felt and theoretically activate certain touch-related parts of the brain, which lets people focus on the main task in front of them, like listening to a teacher or reading a book. Basically, the same reasoning as the doodling study!

Meanwhile, something like a fidget spinner can require some hand-eye coordination or just suck up all your attention. So some psychologists have suggested that fidget spinners really aren’t different from any other toy, which means they’re just a distraction. There’s also the issue that, when you get a bunch of fidget spinners in a room, all that whirring and spinning gets really distracting, even if they are potentially helpful for some kids.

Psychologists also stress that mental illness is complicated, just like any other illness, so attention disorders or anxiety won’t be cured by something as simple as a fidget toy. For now, it looks like some kind of fidgeting or a side-activity like doodling could have some benefits, but we’ll need more peer-reviewed research before we can say anything for sure. This episode is brought to you by Squarespace, which lets users create custom websites or online stores with its all-in-one platform.

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