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Imaginary friends can help grown-ups, as well as children | Eva Wiseman

They help us confront our fears when we are young, but as we get older we find other imaginary friends to take their place

Until a year ago we had an invisible lodger in our house named Uncle. My daughter would call him on the phone, elaborate domestic arrangements involving bus routes and placatory hmms – we would prepare for his arrival with tea cups and saucers, the only time such objects found a place in our lives. Uncle was tall and lived in a pink house that was “very thin”, and it was always a schlep for him to visit, and he often got lost. Still, though, he managed to join us on holiday, and to come to our parents’ houses, and to the park, despite his many phobias. Until one day, he was forgotten – any mention to my daughter of her imaginary friend was met with a scrunched sort of embarrassment. For us.

It is no tragedy that a child’s imaginary friend dissolves with age. They fade into the pre-school fog when real friends, by which I mean children, by which I mean small people who cry about breakfast and teach each other how to draw hands, take priority. But it is being reported as a tragedy that imaginary friends are dissolving altogether. In 2004, it was estimated that by the age of seven, 65% of children had an imaginary friend. Last month a study of nursery workers revealed that 72% believed children have fewer imaginary friends than they did five years ago, blaming, guess, correct, screens. Screens, those imagination leeches, those glass sponges of boredom and self – there are few things adults fear and lust over in equal measure as much as the phone screen. Perhaps Beyoncé, or bread.

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