Looming large: A brief look at toy crazes and addiction

A few days ago my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Dunn asked me Have you written anything about loom band addiction? It’s a hot trend right now and it’s not just for the kids”. If you are not a parent of a tweenager, some of you reading this may have no idea of what a ‘loom band’ even is. Basically, it is a bracelet made from coloured rubber bands using a toy loom (such as the Rainbow Loom or the Cra-Z-Loom Ultimate Bracelet Maker).

Although I have never written on the topic, it just so happened that the day before he asked me the question, one of my regular blog readers sent me an article from the online BBC News Magazine examining the ‘loom band craze’ that is apparently sweeping the UK. Earlier in the year, I also got sent an article by Mark O’Sullivan in The Guardian newspaper on the same topic (“Loom bands: tweens are obsessed with it, and it’s a welcome sight’). Just so we are all clear, the definition of a ‘craze’ as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “an enthusiasm for a particular activity or object which appears suddenly and achieves widespread but short-lived popularity”.

The BBC article – written by Justin Parkinson – began by noting that in this age of the screenager, it’s “curious to find that rubber bands are a big thing”. One of the reasons they have been in the British press is that some schools have banned them (because some children have been using them as weapons rather than as decorative wrist wear. There are also news reports of schools in New York banning them because they were alleged to be the cause of playground fights. Other countries (e.g., the Philippines) have complained that the bands are dangerous to pets as they eat the discarded bands and end up being lodged in animal intestines. Parkinson reported that:

“The Rainbow Loom…has sold more than three million units worldwide. The sheer scale of the craze can be seen in the stats for Amazon UK. All 30 of the best-selling toys are either looms or loom-related. The products top the sales list for every age group except the under-twos…Children use the looms, or their own fingers, to weave coloured bands into items such as bracelets, necklaces and charms. They use dozens of different designs, recommended on YouTube and by word of mouth, including the ‘fishtail’, the ‘dragon scale’ and the ‘inverted hexafish’. In an age when the toy market is dominated by more complicated toys and expensive computer games, backed by marketing campaigns, how did they become so popular?”

It wasn’t so long ago that a similar rubber band craze (i.e., Silly Bandz) swept across a number of countries. Silly Bandz are silicone rubber bands that are shaped into everyday objects, letters, numbers, musical instruments, and animals. However, Silly Bandz were to be collected rather than to be created. In relation to loom bands, the US writer Hallie Sawyer alluded to an addictive quality by describing loom bands as “Silly Bandz on crack [that will] someday clog up every landfill in America”. All I can remember as a kid was using rubber bands to make cheap catapults. For his BBC article, Parkinson interviewed Esther Lutman [assistant curator at the Museum of Childhood] about why loom bands were so popular:

“It’s part of the charm of these crazes that the kids find something they can do at school until they are banned. They keep pushing new stuff, particularly in the summer, when they spend more time in the playground together…I would bracket loom bands] with marbles in the Victorian era, yo-yos in the 1930s and hula-hoops in the 1950s. They are quite cheap, which helps explain their spread around playgrounds. They are at their absolute peak now. Who knows what will be next?”

Although we have no idea what will be next, there will be something else that comes along and captures the time and imaginations of children. Loom bands are clearly the latest in a long line of toy crazes. In my own lifetime I have personally witnessed (as both a teenager and parent) Rubik’s Cube (1980), Cabbage Patch Kids (1983), Slap Bracelets [also known as ‘snap bands’ and described as “Venetian blinds with attitude” by the New York Times) (1990), Tamagotchis (1996), Furbies (1998), Beanie Babies (1995), POGs (1995), and Bratz Dolls (2001).

I am no stranger to writing about crazes (and particularly ‘toy crazes’) and over the last 20 years whenever any new craze comes to the fore I am invariably asked by the media to what extent any of them are addictive and/or problematic. Arguably the most noteworthy (and in hindsight the most embarrassing for me personally) was the rise of the Tamagotchis and Furbies in the mid- to late-1990s. I was quoted in many national newspapers at the time as I had begun to do a bit of research into the psychological effects on children of virtual pets (and even published papers and articles on them – see ‘Further reading below’). For instance, the snippet below appeared in many newspapers:

“Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University has researched what he calls ‘electronic friendship’, and is an authority on technological addictions. His latest subject is the Tamagotchi phenomenon. ‘Children make a massive psychological investment in these things. There have been reports of children going through a bereavement process when their Tamagotchi dies. That has its good points. The whole thing about simulations, whether it’s a pet or an aeroplane, is they help you in real life. I personally feel, the earlier people learn to cope with bereavement the better it is later in life’. He adds: ‘People do actually have attachments with their computer games and favourite fruit machine games. With virtual pets, I can understand it totally. People like to be needed’”.

Every Christmas for the last few years, UK television’s Channel 4 has repeatedly shown the programme 100 Greatest Toys with Jonathan Ross. The Tamagotchi was voted in at No.54 and I am featured in the show – being interviewed by Andrew Harvey on BBC 1’s Breakfast Newstalking about the bereavement like reactions by children to the death of their Tamagotchi.

The good news with all of the crazes that I have ever been asked about is that none of them features a documented case of any child being genuinely addicted to any of the toys that I have been asked to comment on. While some of the children may have engaged excessively in the playing of the toys, there was never any evidence of the children experiencing detrimental effects as a result of being addicted.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cruz, G. (2010). From Tickle Me Elmo to Squinkies: Top 10 toy crazes. Time, December 23. Located at: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1947621_1947626_1993018,00.html

Conradt, S. (2010). The quick 10: 10 Toy crazes. Mental Floss, December 18. Located at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/23547/quick-10-10-toy-crazes

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Are virtual pets more demanding than the real thing? Education and Health, 15, 37-38.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). The side effects of Furby fever. Nottingham Evening Post, December 18, p.15.

Griffiths, M.D. & Gray, F. (1998). The rise of the Tamagotchi: An issue for educational psychology? BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology Newsletter, 82, 37-40.

Parkinson, J. (2014). A craze for ‘loom bands’. BBC News Magazine, June 25. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27974401

O’Sullivan, M. (2014). Loom bands: tweens are obsessed with it, and it’s a welcome sight. The Guardian, April 21. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/21/loom-bands-tweens-are-obsessed-with-it-and-its-a-welcome-sight

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on June 29, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Advertising, Case Studies, Games, Marketing, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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