Schools have banned them. Parents of kids with ADHD swear by them. And, I admit, I love them. Just what are we to make of the new craze for fidget toys that is sweeping the country?
Fidget toys, for those who don't know, come in a variety of guises, but the most common ones are either fidget cubes or, my personal favourite, spinners. The cubes are six sided shapes with a different activity on each side allowing you for example, to press a button, twizzle a knob, click a clicker etc. The spinners are different; these consist of three prongs that can be spun with surprisingly satisfying effect.
Originally designed for children and adults with ADHD and Autism who needed something to fidget with to help them focus and concentrate, these toys are increasingly popular with both adults and kids - whether they have special needs or not. In fact, this is one product aimed at a special needs market that has quickly and, rather bizarrely, become mainstream.
If you don't know what the attraction of these little whirring, whirling gadgets is, all I can say is, take one for a spin. You won't look back. My spinner has helped me through many a tedious meeting at work. As you can probably tell, unlike many parents who seem a bit bemused by the whole craze, I am a fan. It is not that I always immerse myself quite so fully in childhood crazes - skoobidous and tamagotchis aside - it's just that as a boredom expert, I think these little hand-held wonders are magic.
I have been researching boredom for around 15 years and written the book on it. And, one of the key elements of boredom is that we get bored because we are searching for stimulation that is missing. Our brains are always active, so if our optimal level of stimulation is not being reached, our brains will search for it via any way possible. This is why we daydream, check our Facebook feed or get addicted to the shopping channel. All of these, however, can draw our attention in too much and prevent us attending to the task in hand.
Some boredom-busting activities, however, are perfect in that they provide just the right level of simulation whilst not absorbing our attention too much so that we can't pay heed to what we need to. Doodling is one such activity and has been proven to help us concentrate during passive tasks like sitting in a meeting. This is one reason, I believe, for the fashion for adult colouring books; they allow us to occupy just the right amount of our brain whilst leaving the rest free for other cerebral concerns.
This then is the joy of the fidget toy. It helps us to concentrate by preventing us from seeking extra stimulation elsewhere. If we spin and click instead of daydreaming, tweeting or buying random items on eBay, then this has to be better in terms of our attending to the task. Fidgeting uses up far less cognitive load than all these other boredom-busters and thus frees space to pay attention to what is going on around us.
And let's face it; we are facing an epidemic of boredom today. Research reported in my book suggests that up to a half of us are chronically bored and my own interest in boredom began when I discovered that it is the second most commonly suppressed emotion at work (second only to anger). And, in our increasingly high stimulant, fast-paced and ever-changing world, our tolerance for low level stimulation, for the mundane, for the pedestrian, is sadly diminishing. The more stimulation we get, the more we need, as out tolerance levels adapt accordingly.
Fidget toys, on the other hand, offer relatively low level, low tech, non-electronic stimulation and, given the choice between spinning and whirring or swiping and scrolling, I know which one I think is the healthier way to help us sustain attention during those duller moments in our lives.
And now, if you will excuse me, I have a fidget toy I need to take for a spin.