A 2004 study by the University of Washington found that by age seven, 65% of children have at least one imaginary friend. A more recent poll suggests that number is trending downward, and like Bing Bong from the Pixar movie Inside Out (SPOILER ALERT), imaginary friends may be disappearing. The suspected reason? Increased screen time.
Screen Time and Imaginary Friends
The poll, conducted by a leading United Kingdom-based nursery (daycare) review website, questioned 1,000 daycare workers about the children at their facilities. The workers reported almost half of their children have had an imaginary friend. However, most of those polled felt that number was higher five years ago. The majority of the participants attributed this decline to screens making children less imaginative.
David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nursery group in Southampton, England shared his thoughts with the PA Media agency. “I think that children are not allowed to be bored anymore” he said. “When children have free time to themselves, they find something creative to do with their mind.”
“Often these days, children expect to be entertained [by] receiving content either from a tablet or a TV,” he added. “I think that diminishes their ability to then use their own imagination to create imaginary friends, to develop language and stories.”
But is lack of imaginary friends, regardless of the reason, a bad thing? There are many benefits of children engaging in pretend play with characters of their own imagination, but Celeste Kidd, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, told The Atlantic, “not all kids have imaginary friends. It’s very common and neither problematic nor a sign of extra intelligence.”
Are Screens Replacing Imaginary Friends?
The poll only reflects the opinions of the daycare workers who participated. It’s not conclusive whether or not screen use is leading to a decline in children’s creativity and imagination.
In fact, in a review of existing studies on the matter, the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, found “the evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated.” Additionally, the majority of studies that exist only look at television screen time.
While they did find negatives like a tendency for children with higher screen time use to have a less healthy diet and impaired sleep, researchers didn’t identify any studies proving the screen time and imaginary friends theory of the daycare workers in the poll.
In its guidelines for screen use, the Royal College recommends parents base time limits by assessing each child’s individual needs.
Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines to parents in the United States, but more broadly recommends, “a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family.”
*For more information on the impact of screen time, including setting limits for your family, click here.