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The fidget business

Pop-its and other fidget toys are selling in their tens of millions. Why are they so popular, and what do they tell us about growing up in a world of screens?

By Will Dunn

Before Lyra’s school banned pop-its, a constant susurrus filled the classrooms. “You could hear it all the time,” says Lyra, who is 11. Teachers were tormented by the sound of hundreds of fingers pressing the bumps on a small, flat piece of silicone rubber, something like a floppy ice cube tray – the pop-it, this year’s all- conquering playground craze. The bumps invert when you press them, making a satisfying little pop.

Lyra describes the effect as like “endless bubble wrap”: once you’ve popped all  the bubbles on one side, you flip it over and pop them all back the other way. The fun never stops. Pop-its come in bright colours, with rainbow and tie-dye patterns the most popular. They can be circular or square, or shaped like a dinosaur, unicorn or ice cream cone.

Since March, more than 12 million pop-its – two for every primary school child – have been sold in the UK. “A lot of kids have them, and it happened quickly,” says one pupil, Tess, who is also 11. The global toy market is worth $95bn, and people in the industry say this is the  biggest craze it has ever seen. Children around the world are buying pop-its  and other “fidget” toys, many of them  sold in packs of 20 or more. These toys might be stress balls, stretchy strings or magic cubes, but all promise to be a substitute for nail biting, hair twisting and pen throwing. Amazon is already selling a fidget toy advent calendar. On TikTok, videos tagged #fidgettoys have been viewed more than ten billion times.

Why is fidgeting suddenly such big  business? In previous years, the most popular toys were representations of machines,  animals or cartoon characters. Now,  children lean more towards those that offer sounds and textures: a pop, snap, crinkle, crunch and squish. The key to the fidget toy boom is partly economic, a result of the speed at which new products can be marketed and manufactured. But it also speaks to a shift in attitudes. Many “fidgets” are sold as a form of treatment for stress and anxiety; the advertising also mentions autism and  attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. What do these toys of an anxious age tell us about the world in which our children are growing up?

At the end of the Second World War, a Scottish fireman called Harry Grossman went into business with his brother, Ray, selling toys and other goods to shops across the UK. When Harry’s son, Martin, took over the business, he developed extensive contacts in China’s emerging manufacturing hubs, which allowed him to bring large volumes of very cheap toys – cheap enough to be picked out by kids and paid for in pocket money – into the UK at short notice. Since the 1980s, H Grossman Ltd or HGL (a wholesaler, selling to shops) has been the unseen force behind most of the country’s biggest playground crazes, supplying loom bands, alien eggs, slime, fidget spinners, and now pop-its.

The company’s chief executive, David Mordecai, was in his study at home early this year when he first saw a pop-it. He’d been sent some designs by HGL’s office in Hong Kong, where his colleagues had received a couple of enquiries about popping toys. As he opened the email, Mordecai’s 15-year-old daughter walked past and stopped to look at his screen. “Crikey Dad, are you doing those?” she asked. “They’re all over TikTok.” It was a valuable insight; all new toy trends now begin on, and are spread by, social media. “That’s exactly what we need to know,” Mordecai told his daughter – who has not, he admits, been offered a finder’s fee.

Since March, HGL has sold six million pop-its – one every two seconds.

Mordecai’s first thought, when he took the sample out of the packet, was that the pop-it felt “addictive… you got it, immediately”. HGL began work on bringing pop-its to the UK as quickly as possible.

It was the start of February. This is normally a difficult time to manufacture anything in China, as factory workers head home for Lunar New Year. But HGL works with more than 150 factories in the country, and the Chinese government’s advice against travelling – combined with the promise of overtime – meant many workers stayed put. HGL could start manufacturing almost immediately, and by the end of the month, the first shipment was ready. Such was the emphasis on speed that the first consignments were flown, rather than shipped, to the UK. Every pop-it in the first batch – a quarter of a million toys – was sold before the plane had landed.

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More air shipments followed, and playgrounds across the country started to fill with the noise of popping silicone. Sea shipments began arriving in early May. “And we’ve just kept adding to the list of fidget items in that craze,” says Mordecai. Since the beginning of March, HGL alone has sold more than six million pop-its – about one every two seconds. While HGL has the biggest range of pop-its, it accounts for less than half the market.

But, although the rapid marketing of fidget toys could not have happened without social media, they rely on bricks-and-mortar retailers to sell them. The internet accounts for only around 10 per cent of sales. Most are bought in toy shop chains such as The Entertainer, newsagents, gift shops and other stores such as Claire’s, which sells jewellery and accessories to girls in 37 countries.

As Mordecai speaks to me on the phone, listing the fidget toys HGL now sells –popping key rings, pea pod poppers (which involve squeezing little rubber peas from a rubber pod), silicone snappers, infinity cubes, and an articulated plastic chain called Wacky Track – something crackles and pops in the background. “I’ve got them next to me on my desk,” he admits. “I pick them up sometimes and play with them. They’re fun. They de-stress you.”

Why do we fidget? It’s a question that has been studied formally since at least 1885, when the Victorian eugenicist Francis Galton attended a “tedious” lecture in a crowded theatre (he politely declined to say which one). From his seat at the back, Galton observed how the audience were still when the speaker held their interest, but began moving when their attention wandered. 

“When the audience is intent,” he later wrote to Nature magazine, “each person forgets his muscular weariness and skin discomfort, and he holds himself rigidly in the best position for seeing and hearing.” But when the audience is bored, the individuals “begin to pay much attention to the discomforts attendant on sitting long in the same position”.

Galton’s view of fidgeting – a “mutiny against constraint”, in which thought gave way to physical movement ­­– was shared by the educators of the time. Victorian education, like Victorian medicine, had little interest in asking why something might be happening, and looked instead to address the symptoms with a punitive cure. Rather than question their own stultifying, repetitive methods, teachers caned the fidgeting out of their pupils, or tied their hands into “finger stocks” to force them to remain still. Schools were built with windows high in the walls to prevent children from looking out.

But people have also used fidgeting to manage their thoughts, and to concentrate, for centuries, if not millennia. Most major religions have some form of prayer beads – the word “bead” is derived from the Middle English word for a prayer – which are used for focusing and counting. Komboloi in Greece and baoding in China have kept hands occupied since at least the Middle Ages.

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Many animals fidget, too, and for a reason. A 2019 study at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a leading medical research institution in the US, watched the brains of laboratory mice as they made decisions, such as whether to press a bar, or to lick something. The researchers found these choices weren’t simple and instant, like a switch; they were something a whole area of the brain, and much of the body, builds up to with  increased activity and “uninstructed movements”. Our brains and our bodies think together, and fidgeting is part of that process. 

In 1992 the American psychologist Kathleen M Dillon asked 30 undergraduate students at Western New England College to pop two six-inch sheets of bubble wrap, measuring their moods via a checklist against which they rated how energetic, tense, tired and calm they felt. Dillon found that, after five minutes of popping, “subjects reported feeling significantly more energised, less tired, and more calm”.

One explanation, she thought, could be found in the way many animals act when they see danger: they freeze. This response (“motor inhibition”) may help them avoid being seen by predators, but it also allows them to focus and decide on a course of action ­– “fight or flight”. In people who are subject to chronic stress, the body spends months or years anticipating such a response, leading to “a similar, but less intense pattern of motor inhibition”, Dillon wrote. A person who is constantly trying to focus, fighting the danger response coded into their muscles, may find that twiddling a pen or popping some bubble wrap works to “reduce stress by releasing this muscle inhibition”. 

As the director of the Center for Computational Experience at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Katherine Isbister studies the ways in which technology meets or frustrates this deep-seated need to play with objects. In the language of human interaction science, the pops and squeezes that make an object fidget-friendly are called  “affordances”, and these are often paired with emotions. “When people are angry, they like to squeeze something hard,” she explains. Meanwhile a soft, furry texture can be calming, and a pen top can be “mesmerising, because it has this mechanical interaction, combined with sound and force feedback”.  

“We’ve been accidentally stripping our world of all its tactile appeal.”

“My opinion is people are fidgeting when they can’t do other things, in the absence of enough sensory stimulus,” says Isbister. Most people in Victorian England worked outdoors, and sitting still at a desk was a new skill that had to be learned. But modern society has arrived at the opposite end of this spectrum; the technology around us has “flattened our sensory landscape”. In the drive to make every action faster and easier, much of the manual work of everyday life has been designed out of it.

This process has been accelerated in recent years, says Isbister. Before the iPhone, for example, phones came in different shapes, “they had all these buttons”. “Think of cars,” she adds, “a Tesla has a giant touchscreen. They’ve gotten rid of all the fidgety, fiddly things in the car. We’ve been accidentally stripping our world of all its tactile appeal.” The first iPhone had a single button on the front, but the latest models present a surface with no border, button, speaker or camera; only information is visible. Prototypes suggest that in a few years, many smartphones will have screens on both sides, and no buttons anywhere.

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Over the same period that smartphones have become ubiquitous, schools have placed less emphasis on both gross motor skills such as running or jumping – a 2018 survey found 38 per cent of secondary schools in England had cut sports provision for 14- to 16-year-olds since 2012 – and the fine motor skills involved in music, art, design and technology. In a 2018 survey of more than 1,200 English schools, 90 per cent said they had made cuts to the provision of at least one creative subject. Isbister says this is also the case in the US: “We’ve gotten rid of a lot of physical education, a lot of art, a lot of music. Those are all things where you’re either moving physically, or you’re doing fine motor manipulation. We’re primates – we like to do that.”

Occupational therapists have warned many young children lack the strength and dexterity to write with a pen or pencil, and a study of ten-year-olds recorded a “significant” decline in grip strength since 1998. Roger Kneebone, a professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, warned in 2018 that many medical students could not cut or sew, because they used their hands so little.

The children I spoke to about the appeal of pop-its all used the same word: “satisfying”. Isbister points out it is not just kids who are “seeking that kind of rich, material stimulation”. Confined to our homes during the pandemic, adults began baking and gardening, bought pets and did jigsaw puzzles. This desire for the sensual and satisfying isn’t new, but something essential that has largely been screened from our lives.

Lily, ten, told me she first saw a pop-it on YouTube. Toys are big on the platform. A video of a Ukrainian seven-year-old called Diana and her brother, Roma, unpacking pop-its from mystery boxes and playing with them has 148 million views. Diana, with her 83 million subscribers, is arguably one of the world’s most popular entertainers, but there are thousands upon thousands of smaller channels on which fidget toys are “unboxed” and played with.

“Why is my kid into all these YouTube videos of another kid’s hands, playing with a toy?”

James Williams worked on “persuasive design” at Google, refining the company’s advertising technology, before moving to the Oxford Internet Institute, where he became a well-known critic of Big Tech and its growing power to seize and hold our attention. Like Isbister, he sees the pop-it craze as an attempt to regain what’s been lost – or taken – in the rapid technological progress of the past 20 years.

When he gives a talk about how tech companies capture and manage people’s attention, parents of young children will sometimes approach him afterwards. “They’ll say, ‘Why is my kid into all these YouTube videos of another kid’s hands, playing with a toy?’”

One answer, Williams says, is that many of our interactions with people and objects are now virtual, and this makes it “easier to get the simulation of the thing… It scratches the itch more quickly, but it only scratches half of the itch. It’s the potato-chip version of the thing, as opposed to the nutritious meal.” In this potato-chip world, people feel a lack of control. When children watch others playing video games or unboxing toys, the first-person viewpoint shows only their hands. “The hand is, I think, emblematic of a certain kind of sense of agency.”

This feeling of lacking control is created, Williams says, by the “sensory overload” of the on-screen world – the constant notifications, the bottomless content. Children and adults face “an infinite number of things to be engaged with, that they can never possibly get through”. One young person described social media to Williams as “this river, rushing you downstream”. That river gets bigger every year, and not only because there is more online content. TV screens have tripled in size in the past two decades – the fastest-growing segment of the market is for screens of 70 inches and larger – and every display has more pixels per inch, more frames per second. There is literally more visual information to process than ever before.

“Tactile fidgeting with toys is used as a kind of escape,” says Williams, a distraction from the “sensory overload”. Perhaps a soft, orderly grid of silicone bubbles offers  reassurance to people growing up in a  world oversaturated with colour, noise and unrealistic expectations. Or, as Williams puts it: “If I can’t perfectly control my whole life, at least I can perfectly control this very bounded thing.”

That pop-its are marketed as a treatment for anxiety or ADHD is not lost on schoolchildren, who have exploited this. Teachers in schools 200 miles apart told me stories about children claiming to “need” pop-its in order to relax or concentrate; in most cases, the only pupils who are allowed to use fidgets in class are those with special educational needs.

In the US, however, the idea of creating a “sensory-friendly classroom” is becoming more popular. Allie Ticktin, an occupational therapist from Los Angeles and the author of Play to Progress, a guide to helping children learn in an increasingly indoor, two-dimensional world, believes fidget toys “should be offered to all kids in school”.

Ticktin teaches the children she works with to fidget for focus, not for fun – “we call them tools, we don’t call them toys” – and she is serious about her project. The day before we spoke, she had met a young boy who couldn’t sit still. “It can look as if he has poor attention, [but] it’s actually that he doesn’t have the musculature to sit.” This is not, she says, something that exercise can fix; the problem is not a lack of activity but a lack of unstructured play, which comes from a lack of so many other things – parental time,  confidence, community.

In the UK teachers tend to see pop-its as a fad. “I think most of the joy is actually in stealing somebody else’s, or grabbing it off somebody,” one teacher told me; this has long been the appeal of toys in the playground.

It’s true that the pocket-money economy isn’t huge. Children aged five to 16 account for about half a per cent of consumer spending in the UK. But what the generation that is beginning to use money for the first time chooses to buy does give us an insight into what the future might look like.

The habits we see now suggest that if we haven’t reached peak screen yet, it is surely coming. This month, when China imposed a new law limiting children’s gaming to three hours a week, the reaction from many Western parents was not horror at the authoritarian government’s overreach, but a kind of cautious envy.

The science fiction author William Gibson imagines a world in which computers look something like fidget toys: some are squishy and translucent, others are made from coral or linen. When the pop-it generation comes of age, will they be happy to work in the rectilinear world we have handed them? Perhaps they will choose to build technology that is softer, bumpier, crunchier, smellier – something, perhaps, with a little more pop.

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor