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A short history of fidgeting

A short history of fidgeting

Fidget toys are booming. Hattie Garlick wonders why

The first outbreaks came in school playgrounds. Early warning signs included the whirring of neon plastic discs around a ball bearing (and a mass outburst of teachers’ fury at these so-called fidget spinners). Soon, small fingers were fiddling with strange, silicone simulations of bubble wrap while watching TV. Between March and September last year, more than 12 million of these Pop Its were sold in the UK: that’s two per child. Now, kids from Taipei to Tadcaster are on to something else: squeezing stress balls and kinetic sand at the breakfast table (or watching others do so on TikTok, where #fidgettoy videos have been viewed 2.6 billion times). 

The squirming, twiddling and jiggling mania that fidget spinners sparked in 2017 has endured for an astonishing half-decade. Astonishing because – in a time when virtual reality goggles allow children to explore the deepest reaches of outer space or the darkest depths of the ocean floor – these primitive toys do absolutely nothing and go absolutely nowhere. Often plastic, usually primary coloured and sometimes scented or shaped as other nonsensical things (“unicorn ice cream” anyone?), each new fidget toy is designed simply to be kept in perpetual motion by the fingers while remaining in the hand. 

Yet their grip on young fingers and minds refuses to loosen. The American Toy Association numbers fidget play among the coming year’s top trends, extolling “toys that provide calming social-emotional comfort to kids”. What does it say about our society when each successive viral toy aims to soothe stressed children? 

Meanwhile, as overwhelmed children turn to fidget toys for calm, underwhelmed grown-ups seem to be giving them a whirl for the opposite effect. Adult fidget toys are popping up on office desks and in Sunday supplements across the world – drained of their neon shades but otherwise identical to their playground predecessors. Consider the Fidget Cube, launched on Kickstarter with a satirical video that vaunted its ability “to satisfy any urges to click, roll, spin and other common fidgety impulses, without driving your colleagues and loved ones away … side-effects include a sudden ability to cope with boring meetings”. 

For the benefit of anyone struggling to sit still and concentrate this is funny because it echoes the language of American adverts for prescription drugs. But the fact that the Fidget Cube became the tenth best-funded Kickstarter project of all time (raising almost $6.5 million) is no joke.

Are we gripped by a pandemic of fidgeting? Have our overstressed, under-exercised and screen-obsessed lives rendered our minds and hands unable to settle, so easily distracted? 

Back in 2010, Nicholas Carr predicted that our addiction to the internet would lead to an intellectual apocalypse of exactly this nature in his Pulitzer-shortlisted book The Shallows: “Never has there been a medium that, like the Net, has been programmed to so widely scatter our attention and to do it so insistently … we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.” Or, actually, the fidget spinner. Is it time to despair? 

During the First World War, doctors expounded the therapeutic value of knitting (and the clickety-clackety sound of needles) for shattered veterans. Some schools even adopted the hobby as a classroom behavioural strategy. “The boys in our room that used to sit and fumble their ink-wells or tap their pencils or tinker with their rulers,” wrote one student in 1918, “are so busy with their knitting that they never fidget or misbehave.” 

Substitute knitting needles for Pop Its and you have the very picture of a pandemic-era classroom. But go back further – as psychoanalyst Darian Leader does in his glorious book Hands – and you find fidget toys everywhere. 

Take 16th-century portraiture (the early selfie): “from fans to gloves to pomanders and lockets … they also testify to the rise of a series of objects that will keep the hands busy and occupied”. Elizabeth I had a record number of portraits painted and is holding a trinket in almost all of them. Yet nobody worried that Good Queen Bess might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because her hand-pacifiers were rare gifts from the new world, not regular Amazon deliveries. They were symbolic of civilisation’s expansion, not its decline. The closest modern equivalent to her ostrich feather fans might be an executive fidget spinner called the Torqbar Magnum, made from “blasted and tumbled and blackened” zirconium. Until recently, it was selling for $449. 

The ancient Greeks popularised worry stones (smooth pebbles designed to be rubbed meditatively between thumb and forefinger) but similar artefacts have been found in Tibet, Native American cultures, and Ireland. Baoding balls (two metal balls rotated repeatedly in the palm of the hand) were popular during the Ming dynasty, but we have struggled with the problem of what to do with our digits since mankind first climbed down from the trees, and “our new upright posture freed the hands from locomotion”, according to Leader. “The advent of tools can be understood as a way to keep the hands busy.” Just picture, for a moment, the exasperated Palaeolithic parent: “Ug, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: put that wheel down.” 

The psychologist and ADHD expert Roland Rotz has hypothesised that our tendency to fidget is rooted in “floating attention”. Evolution hived off a tiny portion of our concentration, the argument goes, lest our all-consuming focus on the task at hand should stop us from spotting the woolly mammoth lurking behind the bushes. So if fidgeting is just a useless relic of our evolutionary journey – pointless but harmless, like the appendix – how did we end up reading so much significance into it? As with most guilty pleasures, the story starts with the church.

Christianity has long understood that humans are innately fidgety creatures, but it also associated wandering fingers with wandering minds. The devil, after all, makes work for idle hands. Eve was likely feeling fidgety when she reached for the apple. If she’d had a fidget spinner, things may have worked out differently. Instead, third-century monks gave their hands something else on which to focus their activity and, by extension, their minds: rosary beads. 

But if fidgeting was originally in league with the devil, it became associated with something more tantalising when the clergy handed over to doctors. “In the late 19th Century, the field of psychology was expanding at the same time as the railways and other modern communications,” explains Rhodri Hayward, historian of psychiatry and co-founder of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. “Suddenly, the middle classes started to worry that their energies were being drained by all these new technologies.” 

In a series of lectures in 1891 entitled On Common Neuroses, the eminent physician James Goodhart identified an outbreak of fidgeting among his patients as symptomatic of the weakening of English character (a true gentleman, it seems, stiffened not only his upper lip but his fingers too). “But for Freud, of course, the energy problem related primarily to sex,” says Hayward. “If you can’t realise your sexual desires and channel those energies properly, it could manifest as fidgeting.” 

Both Goodhart and Freud, Hayward points out, paint fidgeting in economic terms: humans have energy in the bank that must be spent properly. It sounds strangely like the script of today’s wellness industry: “invest in yourself”. Indeed, it wasn’t long before fidgeting gained value of a more literal kind. 

In 1955, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the psychostimulant methylphenidate, otherwise known as Ritalin, to treat conditions ranging from chronic fatigue to depression. Two years later, the American paediatrician Maurice Laufer identified “hyperkinetic syndrome” and suddenly fidgeting was no longer indicative of your true, perverse nature, but of a condition that was holding your “best self” back. Fidgeters found themselves at the pharmacy counter instead of on the shrink’s couch. Today, in a world replete with spinny, squeezy, strokey toys, you don’t even need a prescription to buy into the fidget economy. Just a finger twitching over the buy-with-one-click button. 

Does channelling our energies into fidget toys actually help? The few studies endlessly recycled by toy companies might suggest so. But the truth is more prosaic, say psychologists David Hulac and Kathleen Aspiranti. In one study Aspiranti conducted on ADHD children, fidget toys helped to keep their eyes on the teacher and on the page, but didn’t improve their academic performance. In another, conducted by the pair on typical classrooms of eight and nine year olds, many of the students reported a beneficial effect. The data? Not so much. “The truth was at first, they were really distracting,” says Hulac. “Then once they became normalised, that effect waned.” Fidget toys did not boost reading performance, nor did they dent it much. When it came to maths, the kids performed worse. What can we make of this? “We do a lot of stuff because we think it helps, when actually it doesn’t,” shrugs Hulac. “Like eating ice cream when we’re sad.”

So, if fidgeting doesn’t have a dramatic effect on our productivity, and has meant wildly different things to different people at different points in history, can its current popularity tell us anything at all about our own age and inner lives? 

“Here’s what I think is going on,” says Katherine Isbister, professor of computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “People’s emotional and cognitive regulation has always leant on physical strategies. Working with the body influences our state of mind.” 

Not so long ago you would have chopped, heaved, scrubbed or otherwise physically worked those fidgety feelings out of you. But sedentary, screen-based lives stripped away many of those physical coping mechanisms; the pandemic even more so. “And given no other options, we reach to fine-motor exercise as a last resort for self-regulation.” 

Either way, Isbister suggests it’s time we dumped the moralistic disapproval. “We’ve inherited this very Victorian, moralistic idea that we should master our bodies. Perhaps now we’re learning that we’re too in control of them.” 

Last year, the first study of misokinesia, or the “hatred of movements”, was published, revealing that nearly one-third of us are needled by other people’s fidgeting. Actually, symptoms of misokinesia intensified in older age groups. It’s not the fidgeters who’ve got issues, it’s the curmudgeons who tut at them. 

As our understanding of fidgeting evolves, the fidget economy will too. As Hayward explains, the word itself is a slippery fish that has already flipped, etymologically, from behaviour to product, and from troubling manifestation of subconscious turbulence to a self-optimisation technique. Its next big rebrand is already under way. 

The Pro chair features an S-shaped back that prohibits sitting still and actively encourages fidgeting or, as its German designer Konstantin Grcic calls it, “dynamic sitting”. Meanwhile, Isbister’s student Chen Ji is currently designing augmented reality fidgeting tools for meetings: fiddle with a touchpad under the table and it triggers the appearance of calming visuals, like a blossoming lotus, on the lens of your AR specs. Soon, Isbister predicts, our devices will become less flat and glassy, and more textured and tactile in recognition that “we just really like to use our hands. After all, we’re primates. Fine manipulation of things is kind of who we are.”

Hattie Garlick is an author, columnist and parent to fidgeters.

Illustrations Alva Skog

This piece appeared in Festival, the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.