Health

Do You Really Need to Be Afraid of Toothpick Crossbows?

June 22nd 2017

By:
Mike Rothschild

Move over fidget spinners, there's a new toy stoking fear in classrooms.

Publications like Boing Boing ...

boing boing HL

Time ...

fidget spinner

and even Fox News have all weighed in.

Fox HL

Described by the Guardian as "handheld mini-crossbows that can fire needles and nails," the so-called "toothpick crossbow" is the latest small toy that kids must have and parents must fret about.

According to breathless news reports, the toys have become a full-on public health hazard in China, where they can be bought in shops and online for about a dollar, and have been used by naughty school kids to fire tiny projectiles into everything from meat and walls to soda cans and light bulbs.

And while many reports have compared them to the ubiquitous fidget spinner toys that have been banned by schools across the country, fidget spinners at least have a theoretically productive purpose: channeling nervous energy into something more relaxing.

As their name implies, toothpick crossbows exist only to fire tiny projectiles into things and people.

And they seem to be getting parents in both China and the rest of the world worried.

Like any media driven panic, it's important to get into the facts behind the hysterical stories. Are toothpick crossbows a problem, or a way for click-starved websites to drive traffic? Do they even exist at all? And is anyone in the U.S. actually worrying about them, or are authorities pushing the panic without evidence?

It's clear from a cursory search that toothpick crossbows are indeed a real thing, and they're not even new. YouTube has over 11,000 videos under "toothpick crossbow," with some going back seven years. Most of those videos are of the "how to make one" variety, with videos of manufactured crossbows shooting stuff fairly rare.

However, judging by reports from Chinese media, the toothpick crossbow has indeed become a real pain for authorities in the country. Chinese websites have plenty of pictures of cheaply made toothpick crossbows firing bolts into soda cans and pieces of fruit, and a particularly worrisome story from Shanghai Daily shows one firing a toothpick at such velocity that it busts a balloon on the other side of a piece of cardboard.

According to the BBC, "cities like Chengdu, Kunming and Harbin have already banned sales of the toy, while parents in Hong Kong are also raising concerns," while police are cracking down on their sales near schools. Beyond that, popular Chinese-language auction sites, including Taobao, jd.com, Alibaba, and 1688 have all removed or banned toothpick crossbow sales.

Where they are not banned, at least so far, is on American auction sites. A search on eBay brings up hundreds of different toothpick crossbows Americans can buy from around the world, as does Amazon, where you can find them made from everything from cheap wood to ornate metal.

It's here that the panic seems driven more by fear of potential use than by actual incidents.

ATTN: couldn't find any recent stories regarding toothpick crossbows that didn't mention them in the context of China, nor were any stories from the last six months found on Google that mention them as being either used or confiscated in a school in the United States.

Given the lack of U.S. media mentions and their copious availability on U.S. auction sites, it's clear that the panic over toothpick crossbows simply hasn't made its way over from China.

So take the media reports of a plague of armed children shooting up soda cans and apples in stride. If China is any indication, schools and corporations alike are likely to be much less forgiving of small weapons than of fidget spinners.