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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

In a digital age, will childhood toys still carry the same value?

The sentimentality attached to toys in years gone by has been replaced by a highly disposable consumerist society, writes Justin Thomas

Closing down signs sit outside Toys"R"Us on New Kent Road in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty
Closing down signs sit outside Toys"R"Us on New Kent Road in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty

There is a teddy bear in the Canadian War Museum. It’s known as the Rogers Bear. It’s not much to look at; it’s missing both eyes and both legs.

This threadbare bear once belonged to a little girl called Aileen. She gave the bear to her father Lawrence Rogers, perhaps intending that it might comfort him or keep him safe while he was away working as a medic during the First World War.

On October 30, 1917, Mr Rogers was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele. He had the teddy bear with him when he died. It was recovered and returned to Aileen. Today it sits in the museum in Ottawa, a beautiful example of what psychologists might call an attachment object.

We need things and things need us. This is a prehistoric relationship that Stanford professor of anthropology Ian Hodder,describes as "entanglement".

We are dependent on all kinds of objects in our daily lives for their functional value, from cars to computers and household appliances. However, some objects fulfil our emotional needs too.

Certain objects can soothe us and provide us with a sense of security. Similarly, some objects might give us a feeling of connection, such as an old school tie, or belonging, like a traditional dress, reflecting significant social relationships or group memberships.

Such attachment objects can be powerful promoters of emotional wellbeing.

Pretty much anything can become an attachment object and the emotional significance typically has nothing to do with the monetary value of the item.

Things that become attachment objects tend to be portable, long-lived and are often items that have been gifted or made for us.

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They are not typically things we have bought for ourselves. You can shop for objects but attachment objects are not available in the stores. They are made in the minds of their owners.

Having attachment objects is healthy. Many of us have them but might not be aware of what they are.

Think of something you own that is entirely replaceable in the material sense but would cause you disproportionate distress if it were lost or destroyed. If you can think of something, that might be an attachment object.

As children, we will often have a toy, teddy bear or even a blanket to which we become particularly attached. Some of us might also carry these childhood attachment objects into adulthood.

A survey undertaken in 2011 suggested that a surprising 35 per cent of adults in the UK slept with some attachment object, typically a stuffed toy.

The frequency and type of attachment objects vary across cultures but the phenomenon is found everywhere stretching all the way back to prehistoric times.

The archaeological record frequently reports crudely made figurines or toys as part of ancient child burials. Britain’s oldest toy, an animal figurine carved from chalk, was recovered from an infant grave dating to the middle bronze age.

Childhood, however, is changing. For one thing, toy sales are shrinking.

Many of the big players associated with toy manufacturing and retail, such as Mattel, Hasbro and Lego, are reporting losses and declining sales.

Most notable of all, the recent Toys "R" Us bankruptcy has been heralded as the death of toys in an era of digital games.

But could we ever become as attached to a digital game or digital device as we do to dolls and stuffed toys?

Many of us seem particularly connected to our smartphones, using them to feel a sense of comfort by reducing the anxiety associated with awkward silences and unwanted social situations.

However, the smartphone is a very short-lived attachment object. As soon as a new model comes out, we are relatively unsentimental about trading in the old device.

Perhaps in our consumer societies, where things are highly disposable and experiences get stored in the digital cloud, attachment objects will become increasingly rare.

That, however, makes them all the more valuable.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University