Have screens killed imaginary friends?

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  Published on Tuesday, 01 October 2019

Have screens killed imaginary friends?

Library Home  >  Early Childhood Research
  Published on Tuesday, 01 October 2019

A new survey of early childhood staff in the UK has shown that fewer children have imaginary friends than they did five years ago, with screen time being cited as the major factor in making children less imaginative.

The survey by daynurseries.co.uk, received 1,000 responses from early childhood service owners, managers and staff and has highlighted the impact technology is having on children.

The poll showed that just under half of staff members surveyed (48 per cent) said children at their service have imaginary friends.

This number is seen as a decline, with 72 per cent of respondents saying fewer children have imaginary friends than five years ago. The survey participants blame technology, with 63 per cent saying they think screens are making children less imaginative.

A spokesperson for daynurseries.co.uk, said it was sad that nursery staff have seen a decline in children having imaginary friends and attributed it to schedules busy with activities and screen-time.

"Parents 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 like Puff the Magic Dragon.

"Parents need 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," said daynurseries.co.uk's spokesperson.

David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nurseries, agreed that fewer children have imaginary friends and agreed with the theory it is because children are not allowed to be 'bored' anymore. He said that when children have free time to themselves, they find something creative to do with their mind, such as forming an imaginary friend.

"I don't believe it is screens per se that have contributed to the decline, it's the time these screens take up. The biggest effect screens have, is on the children's ability to communicate with each other and problem solve. Screen applications are predictable and programmed, unlike real life.

"Our children are less able to cope when things go wrong if they spend large amounts of time on screens as they haven't practiced the skills of problem solving, social interaction, and how to build their own resilience."

Sarah Steel, managing director of The Old Station Nursery, believes it is adults that are failing children by not taking time and interest in children's imaginary play and are too often themselves glued to screens and phones.

"There is a lot of guidance available on imaginary friends, for those who want it. We don't want to be too much of a nanny state by telling parents what to do. However, tech manufacturers must take some responsibility and stop aiming devices at children – iPad holders on prams are simply awful! If nurseries can help encourage parents to read to their children or carry out different activities, as opposed to encouraging more screen time, that's so much better."

Earlier this year the World Health Organisation issued its first guidelines on screen time limits for children and recommended that babies younger than 12 months shouldn't be exposed to any electronic screens.

The screen time limits were announced under broader recommendations on physical activity, sleep and sedentary behaviour.

WHO Recommendations at a glance

Infants (less than 1 year) should:

  • Be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, particularly through interactive floor-based play; more is better. For those not yet mobile, this includes at least 30 minutes in prone position (tummy time) spread throughout the day while awake.
  • Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g. prams/strollers, highchairs, or strapped on a caregiver's back). Screen time is not recommended. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.
  • Have 14–17h (0–3 months of age) or 12–16h (4–11 months of age) of good quality sleep, including naps.

Children 1-2 years of age should:

  • Spend at least 180 minutes in a variety of types of physical activities at any intensity, including moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity, spread throughout the day; more is better.
  • Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g., prams/strollers, highchairs, or strapped on a caregiver’s back) or sit for extended periods of time. For 1-year-olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended. For those aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.
  • Have 11-14 hours of good quality sleep, including naps, with regular sleep and wake-up times.

Children 3-4 years of age should:

  • Spend at least 180 minutes in a variety of types of physical activities at any intensity, of which at least 60 minutes is moderate- to vigorous intensity physical activity, spread throughout the day; more is better.
  • Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g., prams/strollers) or sit for extended periods of time. Sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.
  • Have 10–13h of good quality sleep, which may include a nap, with regular sleep and wake-up times.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019