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The fidget business

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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 pres
sing 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…
Will Dunn
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