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Do Fidget Spinners Actually Work or Are They a Distraction?

June 20, 2017

A new toy craze that claims to increase students’ focus has taken over many schools across the country.

The toy, called a fidget spinner, has been marketed as a way to increase attention in children who have attention disorders or autism, but they’ve become more popular among many students who now use these gadgets as a source of entertainment.

Fidget spinners have a button in the middle and paddles surrounding it that can be spun. The argument is that spinners provide a background sensory activity for people prone to fidgeting, which improves their ability to concentrate and focus on important tasks. Fidget spinners aren't necessarily a prescribed item, but you'll see that people wind up using these things on their own, whether it's doodling, tearing up paper, or the like. If people are going to fidget, they're most likely going to do it whether or not they have a fidget spinner in hand.

However, science doesn’t support the idea that fidget spinners are an invaluable tool for improving concentration and research on how well these toys work is limited. Studies have shown that movement and increased physical activity can increase levels of focus and cognitive performance in children with attention disorders. However, fidget spinners weren’t included in these studies. Researchers in the study that measured cognitive performance even had this say: “While there are currently tools on the market (e.g., fidget toys) that allow individuals to fidget without disrupting others, there has not been extensive research on their efficacy.”

The very nature of how fidget spinners work also pose another challenge to arguments that these devices minimize distractions. Fidget spinners require the user to hold them in his or her hand, which makes it impossible to do any other task. In a classroom setting, this is a big distraction, especially when students are asked to write or draw. Fidget spinners also can be distracting to other students who don’t have these gadgets, since these devices make noise and can be in another student’s line of sight.

Some schools have banned fidget spinners. In one case, a boy got hurt after his classmate’s wayward spinner accidently hit him in the eye. Schools in Washington state, New York, Florida and Illinois also have banned them as more students have used spinners to do tricks, leading to a distraction for both students and the teachers who are trying to educate them.

“Although seemingly harmless, these items are being taken out during class causing a distraction to students and staff. They are also being thrown around during transition in the hallways to and from class and in the cafeteria and at recess. They are small in size, but can seriously hurt someone,” one Brooklyn school wrote in a message to parents on its Facebook page.

These types of toys are fine for use outside of the classroom, but let’s not confuse entertainment for solid science. Fidgeting toys and other sensory objects, like a stress ball, may provide a useful distraction for a few moments. Some parents also argue that fidget spinners may reduce the stigma around attention disorders, because if their child’s classmates also embrace these toys, then their child is less likely to feel different for using them to help with concentration. This is a fair point, but fidget spinners pose a problem when they take away from the work at hand.

Some students may find these tools useful to redirect their energy, but for students who don’t have attention disorders, these gadgets serve less of a purpose. If these toys ultimately become a distraction, then they are actually doing the opposite of what they're supposed to do — and there’s no point in having them in the first place. 

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