Catherine Scott: Comforting effect of an imaginary friend

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It might not quite be up to the standards of last year, but the John Lewis Christmas advert has been praised for raising some important issues.

As a child who had an imaginary friend myself, I understand the comforting image of Moz living under the bed – although my friend Billig was always on the end of the phone. But he had the same comforting effect on me that Moz the Monster has on the little boy in the John Lewis advert.

Now, academics at the University of Huddersfield have praised the advert for showing the positive image of an imaginary companion (IC).

Psychology lecturer Dr Paige Davis is established as one of the world’s leading researchers into the widespread phenomenon of the imaginary companion (IC) or the “personified object” – when imaginary life is breathed into a toy such as a teddy bear.

Dr Davis praised the ad for the positive portrayal of an imaginary friend. “I like the fact that the makers don’t stick to the antiquated idea that ICs are bad. Children use ICs functionally for many different purposes, and in this case it is to alleviate fear of the dark.

“The commercial is very accurate on how kids see their imaginary companions. This child really plays with the IC and has strong feelings for it.”

At one time the standard response of teachers and parents was to worry about children who created fantasy friends. However, new theories developed in the 1990s argued that ICs could improve the mental, social, and verbal skills of young children.

In my case, Billig was a friend who had been everywhere and done everything that I wanted to do. He was a constant at a time when my life was probably in a bit of turmoil. When the ship steadied he left, never to return.

Dr Davis is now carrying out research at a Yorkshire primary school to see whether or not the children who create an imaginary companion are doing so because they have better mental skills.

“The research aims to dispel the myth of the IC as being problematic, and instead position Moz where he should be; as a supportive tool that a child can use to stop being lonely, talk through a problem with, or conquer a fear of the dark, which the John Lewis advert shows well.”

However, it seems that the number of children with an IC is on the decline. In 2001, almost half of British children had imaginary friends, but now that has dwindled to a measly 17 per cent. According to research, too much technology is robbing children of their imagination and could be to blame for the decline of the imaginary friend.