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Is screentime replacing the imaginary friend of your child?

Vani Venugopal Vani Venugopal 9 Mins Read

Vani Venugopal Vani Venugopal


Make-believe or imaginative play has a vital role in a child's overall development. Can excessive gadget usage pose a threat to our children's developing imagination by reducing the amount of time they engage in imaginative play? Read on to find out

Is screentime replacing the imaginary friend of your child?

When I was young, I had an imaginary friend named Mili. We met during a summer vacation when my sister was away visiting my grandparents, leaving me bored at home. Those were the days before mobile phones and games when there was just one TV at home, which the adults monopolized. But I didn’t complain because Mili was the perfect companion. She was funny, wore blue nail paint (which my mother would never let me wear), and could turn into a crow at will. She and I would have tea parties together, collect odd-shaped stones from the garden and go on adventures.

Mili stayed with me for many months and slowly faded away, perhaps off to another adventure. While I know she wasn't real, I still think of her fondly as a childhood friend.

Imaginary friends are a common manifestation during childhood. Surveys worldwide have shown that many children have imaginary friends — either an utterly made-up person/creature or a doll or stuffed toy they treat as a real person.  A 2004 study published in Developmental Psychology found that in the United States, by the age of seven, 65% of children have had imaginary friends.

Psychologists worldwide agree that having an imaginary friend is a normal part of development; it is often considered a sign of developing social intelligence. Children's imaginations start developing when they are two to three years old. This is when they begin engaging in pretend play or imaginative play, an unstructured form of play that includes role-playing and enacting scenarios they have seen or would like to experience. Many of us would remember playing teacher or doctor when we were young. Those are good examples of pretend play. Many children make up imaginary people too, and a few of them become their companions.

Children make up imaginary friends for many reasons. It is a fun way for them to engage themselves when they are bored or lonely. It helps them explore things they can't in real life, like flying (or as in my case, wear blue nail paint). Pretend play also gives children autonomy and allows them to be in complete control, which they rarely experience otherwise.

Why imaginary friends are good for children

While there was an earlier perception that only shy or lonely children made up imaginary friends, research has shown that children with pretend companions tend to be more creative and have better social skills than others. While their imaginary friends might not be real, the conversations that children have with them are real. This can help the children develop better language skills and build vocabulary faster than others.

An imaginary friend often helps children process their feelings, both positive and negative. Having a companion to turn to when they feel sad or frustrated encourages them to express their emotions better. It can also help them cope with difficult situations and changes to their routine. Pretend play allows children to put themselves in others' shoes easily, enabling them to view a situation from multiple perspectives and therefore be more empathetic.

Is screentime replacing the imaginary friend?

While pretend play is an integral part of the development of children, recent years have seen it being replaced by gadgets. Children are spending an increasing amount of time staring at screens, with estimates suggesting that the screen time of preschoolers has doubled in the past two decades. Increased screen time is known to lead to reduced physical activity, risk of obesity and has also been linked to lack of sleep. However, does it have anything to do with children's ability to conjure up imaginary friends?

In 2019, daynurseries.co.uk conducted a survey that revealed the worrying trend that imaginary friends are not as common as they once were. And the culprit? Screentime! Of the 1,000 nursery and childcare workers interviewed during the survey, only less than half said that the children in their care had imaginary friends. Around 72% of them claimed that fewer children have imaginary friends now than five years ago. A majority (63%) also said that this decrease in pretend play was caused by increased screen time.

Another survey by Legal & General that studied imaginary friend trends among children found that preschoolers (1-4 years old) who had more than two hours of screentime a day were 3.5 times less likely to have an imaginary companion than children who had lesser screentime. The researchers believe that this could be because heavy use of screens harms visual memory, attention span, and creative imagination, all of which are crucial to creating imaginary friends.

A 2020 study published in the journal Developmental Science showed that excessive screen time reduces children's mental imagery skills or the ability to imagine things, places, and people in their minds. Screens can only engage our sight and hearing and not our other senses like smell, taste, etc. For instance, when we try to picture ourselves walking in the rain, we can easily imagine how the water droplets feel on our skin, the feeling of a cool breeze, and the smell of damp earth. This comes from previous experience. However, if you watch the same on a screen, you will not be able to imagine the scenario as vividly. For children, the early years of sensory exposure and learning are crucial to cognitive development, including problem-solving, language, and imagination. Excessive screen time can hinder this process and curb the many ways they engage in pretend play, including having imaginary friends.

How to encourage imaginative play in children

However, despite all their negative impact, it's not easy to paint screens as villains. Gadgets have their own set of benefits and, when used right, can aid in your child's learning. Besides, screens are too integral to life today to advocate avoiding them altogether. So, what can you do as a parent to encourage your child's cognitive and creative development through pretend play? Here are a few simple steps.

Limit screentime: While eliminating screentime will be difficult, limiting your child's digital activities is a good idea. You can decide on how much time your child should spend on screens based on their individual needs. For instance, it might be challenging to cut down screen time for older children with the current online school scenario. However, ensure a good balance of on-screen and off-screen activities in their day. For preschoolers, it is recommended that screen time be restricted to one hour a day.

Dedicate time for free play: Children today are overstimulated with activities. We focus on filling their days with activities that encourage their learning and development. However, it is essential to include some free and unstructured time in their daily schedule. This downtime allows spontaneity and inventiveness and enables them to grow curious and explore the world around them on their own. It aids in the development of their creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

Share stories with them: Storytelling is a great way to help fire up your child's imagination. Dedicate some time to spending time with your little ones and telling them stories. Make the stories more enjoyable by adding different voices and movements. Involve them in the storytelling by letting them interrupt you and ask questions. You can even begin a story and get your children to make up endings for it.

Allow them to get bored: Boredom is good! As parents, it is our instinctive reaction to find something to entertain our children when they come to us with cries of "I'm bored!". Psychologists are now telling us to allow children to get bored. Being left to their own devices often forces children to be imaginative and invent creative ways to amuse themselves. So, help them look at boredom as an opportunity to create or explore instead of something to be avoided.

Introduce them to the world of books: There is nothing that nurtures a child’s imagination and creativity more than reading. When children read, they visualize the characters, places, and events in their minds. By exposing children to books that pique their curiosity and sense of wonder and fantasy, parents can stimulate their imaginations and foster imaginative play. Don’t stop with just reading, encourage them to act out the stories, too.

Provide them with materials: Children sometimes need help to get started. And when it comes to pretend play, you don't require specialized materials and toys as prompts. Create a prop box for them with things that they might find interesting like old clothes they can use for dressing up, utensils to build a play kitchen, a bedsheet or a blanket, and pillows they can build a fort with, stuffed animals and puppets. Sometimes it might be the most mundane thing, like an old cardboard box, that captures your little one's fantasy by transforming into a spaceship to carry him off on an adventure.

Encourage outdoor play: Spending time outdoor surrounded by nature can go a long way in developing your child's sensory abilities. When they are outdoors, they engage all five senses as opposed to when they are watching TV. This is sensory development essential in helping build their creativity and mental imagery skills, which encourages pretend play.

While screens now play a role in how our children develop and perceive the world, let us ensure that they experience the magic of their own imaginations. Apart from the opportunities for learning and development, it is also a thing of joy for a child. One of my fondest memories of my childhood is a birthday party I had for Mili. My parents, who were invited, not only came to the party but also brought a cake and sang, 'Happy Birthday' along with me. Now, as an adult, when I look back, I cannot think of a better gift they could have given me.

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