Fidget spinners: What are they?

This season's hottest toy, the fidget spinner, is marketed as an antidote for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and autism.

Fidget spinners are small, ball-bearing devices that the user can rotate between their fingers. The momentum of the toy provides a pleasing sensory experience, while the challenge of tossing, transferring and twirling the spinners has spawned an entire universe of instructional YouTube videos.

Many spinners are marketed as aides for individuals with anxiety, autism and ADHD; that promises greater concentration for people with those conditions, stress relief, plus an opportunity to bring out that creative genius lying deep within you.

Unsurprisingly, these claims are probably overblown, scientists say. "Using a fidget spinner is more likely to serve as a distraction than a benefit for individuals with ADHD," said Mark Rapport, a clinical psychologist at the University of Central Florida who has studied the benefits of movement on attention in people with ADHD.

Regardless of their usefulness in keeping kids' distracted brains focused, fidget spinners have sparked a conversation about attention spans in kids and how to help the little ones focus. For instance, though there isn't a lot of data supporting the idea that kids have less focus today than in the past, some research does suggest attention spans have decreased as multitasking has increased with the digital age. There are various methods for bringing kids' focus back to the lesson at hand, psychologists say, including fidgeting devices, activity breaks and the simple removal of extra distractions. The devices may also teach kids something about physics, or at least ball bearings.

A trend erupts

Fidget spinners emerged this spring, seemingly from out of nowhere, as a must-have gadget. Before December 2016, Google searches for the words "fidget spinner" were basically nonexistent. Now, teachers are posting about their frustrations with spinner-obsessed students on Twitter, and the toys even have their own forum on Reddit.

Most of the controversy surrounding fidget spinners has been over schools banning them from classrooms. Many elementary school principals say that the spinners have been a distraction in classrooms in her school, and that children with special needs have other, school-friendly options for fidgeting. Meanwhile, some parents of kids with special needs have hailed the toys' benefits.

One blogger, a parent of an 8-year-old with autism, wrote on that her daughter was thrilled to see her classmates wanting to fidget just like her. School-approved fidget devices mark her daughter as different, wrote Miriam Gwynne, but fidget spinners are simply cool.

For her, the fidget spinner is not a must-have craze to be like her friends, but more a stress release from the demands placed upon her during her school day, much the same as she uses a stress ball or her twist-and-lock blocks, Gwynne wrote. When schools decide to ban sensory and fidget toys, they risk isolating the very children they’ve spent years trying to include.

The list of schools banning the spinners seems to be growing quickly. But at least one expert is disappointed by the bans. "These little gadgets should be called fidget tools, not toys, and they can be part of a successful strategy for managing fidgety behavior if they are introduced as a normal part of the classroom culture," said Claire Heffron, a pediatric occupational therapist in Cleveland.

Even so, teachers say that most kids are using the fidget spinners as toys, focusing on them rather than on class.

What are the spinner benefits? 

There's no doubt that toys that allow kids to fidget can benefit kids with autism. Occupational therapists often use sensory toys like tactile discs, Koosh balls and even putties or clays to soothe kids who have sensory-processing issues. Similarly, research has shown that movement can help kids with ADHD to focus. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology by Rapport and his colleagues looked at 8- to 12-year-old kids with ADHD. The researchers found that those who participated in gross motor activity; meaning the movement of limbs or large parts of the body; performed better than those who sat still during tasks involving working memory, which is a type of memory used for processing incoming information. Exercise has also been proven to be helpful for kids with ADHD.

But without studies that specifically look at fidget spinners, it's impossible to say whether the devices could help kids with ADHD or not. Fidget spinners are not likely to help much therapists say, because they don't require gross body movements, which is what appears to be responsible for increasing activity in the frontal and prefrontal brain areas that are responsible for sustaining attention. The spinners are also visually distracting, and so they could pull a child's attention away from the chalkboard or teacher.

Spinner safety 

An unofficial report in June about possible lead in these toys may have parents worried, but don't clear your home of the spinners just yet. Tamara Rubin, a lead-poisoning-prevention advocate who is not affiliated with any university or research institution, home-tested 11 fidget spinners and found unusually high amounts of lead in two of these. Even so, Rubin's findings have not been replicated nor peer-reviewed; and Rubin only tested 11 spinners.

A bigger concern may be the risk of kids choking on some of the spinner's small parts. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, is looking into reports of children choking on parts that have popped out of a fidget spinner, said Patty Davis, the CPSC's acting communications director.

Here are some tips from the Toy Association for keeping your kids safe while fidget-spinning:
- Follow age labels
- Shop at reputable stores (where you'll find toys that passed safety testing)
- Follow tips for light-up spinners (make sure the spinner's battery is locked in the spinner)
- Check for broken parts (which can be a choking hazard).

Final conclusion

My thoughts about the whole spinner craze are the following: if you notice that your child is benefiting from spinning these toys while doing schoolwork, let them fidget. They don't harm anyone with it. Every child is different and has other needs. But keep an eye on them and tell them not to put the peaces that come of in their mouth. Teach your child to be responsible.