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A new survey suggests that imaginary friends are not as common as they once were—and screen time might be to blame.

By Kristi Pahr
September 03, 2019
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boy on swing asking Siri if she will be his friend
Photo illustration by Parents staff; Getty Images (1); Adobe Stock (1)

It seems that the once prolific and widespread imaginary friend is on the verge of extinction. A recent survey of 1,000 nursery and childcare workers across the U.K. showed that less than half of the workers said children in their care had imaginary friends and 72 percent of respondents claim fewer children have imaginary friends now than 5 years ago.

The culprit in the case of the missing imaginary friends is believed to be none other than, you guessed it, technology. According to the survey, published by Daynurseries.co.uk, the majority of respondents (63 percent), believe that an increase in screentime is directly related to a decrease in imaginative play and, thus, imaginary friends.

"Parents can tend to fill every hour of a child's day with activities and screens and they are no longer left to get bored. When children are left to their own devices, it forces them to be creative and discover an inner world where they meet fun imaginary friends," said a Daynurseries.co.uk spokesperson. "Parents need to take a step back and stop micro-managing their children and leave them to play and daydream so they can become adults who are innovative and resilient and think outside the box."

Nursery owner David Wright tells the DailyMail, "Quite often these days, children expect to be entertained in some way, so that they're receiving content either from a tablet or a TV, and I think that diminishes their ability to then use their own imagination to create imaginary friends, to develop language and stories and that kind of thing."

Another survey, published earlier this year, found that, while children can develop imaginary friends at any age, the most common age for these pretend playmates to show up is around age 4. But in the middle of the 20th century, parents were advised to discourage play with imaginary friends because scientists thought the presence of invisible playmates might be a sign of mental illness or indicate that the child had trouble separating imagination from reality. Now, in 2019, we know it's just the opposite. Studies have shown that imaginary friends allow children to practice social interaction, problem-solving, and provide a healthy risk-free way to explore and process emotions.

Screentime does seem to have an effect on the prevalence of imaginary friends, but mainly in younger children, aged 1 to 4. Preschoolers who have less than two hours per day of screentime were 3.5 times more likely to have an imaginary friend than children who use screens for more than 2 hours per day. As kids get older, the difference becomes less marked.

For parents interested in increasing the likelihood their child will create a new (pretend) friend, the best advice is to cut screentime to less than two hours a day and encourage kids to entertain themselves, even at the risk of them being bored.

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