Child playing with fidget spinners
Social and behavioural, Teaching and learning

Using fidget spinners may actually impede learning

A new paper looks at the marketing of fidget spinners as attentional aides.

25 November 2019

By Emily Reynolds

Though fidget spinners have been around since the early 1990s, it was 2017 when they really started to make a stir, becoming a seemingly overnight sensation and starting to appear in offices, classrooms, public transport and pretty much anywhere else they were permitted. The actual provenance of the design has been debated, but many companies market the toys as a tool for concentration, particularly for those who have anxiety, ADHD or autism.

Calming — and fun — they may be, but do they actually work when it comes to keeping attention? Julia S. Soares & Benjamin C. Storm from the University of California, Santa Cruz think not. In a new paper, they look at the marketing of fidget spinners as attentional aides — and come to the conclusion that they may be actively distracting.

To examine the effect of fidget spinners on attention, the team asked 98 undergraduates to watch an educational video lecture about the process of baking bread while either using a fidget spinner or not; a further half of those not using a fidget spinner watched the lecture near someone who was. They were then asked to report any lapses in attention, and took a memory test for the material.

If the logic of the marketing held, those playing with fidget spinners should have outperformed those who were not. But in fact they did not report any fewer lapses of attention than participants from the non-spinning condition, and actually performed significantly worse in the memory test (those who were only near others using them didn’t show a drop in performance).

But could this result have been because participants weren’t used to using the toys? In the second experiment, the team recruited participants who had neutral or positive views of fidget-spinners, removing any potential participants who had negative opinions in a pre-study screening.

A total of 48 participants then replicated the first experiment, this time while watching ten minute videos about Hawaiian ruler Kamehameha the Great and Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. Afterwards, they completed a fifteen-item memory test.

Results seemed to suggest that positive attitudes towards fidget spinners had no impact on how distracting they were: again, those in the spinner condition performed worse on the memory test overall than those in the no spinner condition, and reported more lapses of attention.

The team says their findings add to a growing literature on the potentially negative impact of fidget-spinners on attention. Other studies have shown increased attentional impairment due to fidget spinner use — in some cases, this was even true for those with ADHD, a group that the toy is allegedly meant to help.

Many of those involved in the study were using fidget spinners for the first time; results may be different for those who no longer attach any novelty value to the objects and who may be less likely to become distracted by their use. But parts of the second experiment, which specifically focused on those with a positive attitude towards the toys, do seem to suggest that this is not the case.

As Soares and Storm stress in the paper’s conclusion, such findings don’t mean fidget spinners have no worth, nor that they should be completely banned from the classroom. But perhaps ironically for an object often used so mindlessly, it may be worth thinking more carefully about what impact they’re having.

Further reading

– Putting a negative spin on it: Using a fidget spinner can impair memory for a video lecture

About the author

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest