Screen time for Children: Good or Bad?

Shelly Ribaudo
Oct 12, 2014 · 23 min read

The advantages, challenges & down side of overexposure to electronic devices.

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Preamble, the who, what & why.

I am a paediatric occupational therapist. I work in both a school and private practice. I am passionate about occupational therapy and working with children, which for me is both a science and an art.

I grew up watching a fair amount of television and playing games on the computer. This time was, however, balanced with outdoor / gross motor and imaginative play.

As technology becomes more and more accessible and engrained in our lives; for children today, this balance appears to be tipping more and more towards play involving electronic devices, indoors.

This has become more and more apparent in my work, as the use of electronic devices and smart toys is a dominant force in the lives of many of the children I treat.

This topic has become so relevant in the work that I do and within the lives of the family with whom I work. I believe that excessive use of electronic equipment or screens, by young children in particular, will have a negative impact on their development, attention and ability to self regulate, and therefore their behaviour and ability to learn.

My career involves guiding and nurturing children in order that they may reach their full potential. As a therapist, I have a duty to warn parents, teachers and others involved in the care of children, about the possible danger of children using screens excessively.

The impact that media has on children’s development, is a topic that is not only relevant, but interesting and inspiring (as I hope you will be, to play more and spend less time in front of a screen)…

Introduction to our Digital Culture

Many children in today’s world use some form of media, which usually takes up a large amount of their time. We have all seen the child, playing on an iPad while waiting in the doctor’s room. Or the parent that hands their child their mobile phone, to distract them while they are having a conversation with another adult. Most of us are guilty of this… but with the pace and pressures of life today, can you really blame us?

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Digital media or screens, which used to just include TV and computers, has, in the last few years expanded to mobile phones, tablets, social media and even smart toys. Often some of these devices are used at the same time, increasing screen time even further (13).

According to several American studies, the average time 0–2 year olds spend using digital equipment is 1–2 hours daily (9; 10;15). With 2–4 year olds watching about 2 hours a day; and 5–8 year olds, about 2 1/2 hours(10). This is 3 times more time than they spend being read to and double the time they spend playing outside (5). Unfortunately, few South African studies have been done and thus minimal statistics were available.

Cradle to the Grave

In America, corporations spend 20 billion dollars per year on what they call cradle to the grave marketing. This involves marketing to people, literally from the cradle / birth, to the grave / till they die. In other words their target market now includes children and babies. It started with teenagers, then tweens (pre-teens), then toddlers and now even babies under 2 (5).

Sesame Street started by a lady called Joan Gonz Cooney, in 1969 started the revolution of toddler TV. Before this TV programmes were only aimed at adults and teenagers or tweens (5).

Sesame street was created by Mrs Cooney, who was the first person to truly answer the question, “Can TV be educational?” She wrote a paper called, “Potential uses of television in preschool education.” This was based on extensive research involving professionals across many fields. Her goal was to provide educational TV to children from a variety of cultures and ages; including those from disadvantaged backgrounds (13).

This was then followed by Baby Einstein which was aimed at babies (0–2), which was started by a stay at home mom, Agner Clark. Unfortunately, it is so easy for marketing companies, such as Baby Einstein to sell products under the halo of being educational, by using big words or terms that sound clever such as: “Improves eye-hand co-ordination” and “develops spatial awareness”. Sometimes the marketing is more subtle such as is the name; again using the example of Baby Einstein as the name implies that if your baby watches their DVDs, it will improve their intelligence (5).

Sometimes marketers even have ‘specialists’ to vouch for the benefits of their products. So don’t take anything at face value. Do some research, or ask a professional e.g. an occupational therapist or your child’s teacher, if possible. Often these so called educational toys, games or programmes have no research to support their effectiveness. There is no research out there to show any digital products are beneficial for babies’ (under 2) development. There are some benefits for older children, if used in the right way (5).

Why are Kids Keen on the Screen?

Tablets are the fastest growing device used by kids. Steve Jobs definitely achieved his goal of making a computer the size of book, easy to use by all ages (6).

Children love playing with tablets for obvious reasons. It’s fun, with all the flashing images, movements and sounds which are appealing to the senses. There are hundreds of apps to choose from, so there is something for everyone. They also provide instant gratification and the children don’t have to wait for a response (15).

The Parents Part to Play

Studies have shown that the 3 main reasons parents gave for using media with their children are:

1) That they feel its educational and will make their children more intelligent. Many parents felt that by not allowing their children access to this media, they were doing them an injustice (1; 9).

2) For entertainment purposes. Children enjoy watching their favourite movie or playing computer games in their leisure time, in the same way that adults do (1).

3) Media acts as a free babysitter (9; 10). In today’s day and age where usually both parents need to work and are extremely busy, parents barely have any time to themselves. Sometimes there is not even an opportunity to have a shower. So moms / dads will often pop their little ones in front of the TV or computer or whatever, just to give them a bit of down time. I remember when I was growing up, my parents had a tape that they called my babysitter with all my favourite shows. This gave them some time to get things done or just to relax.

Another research finding is that parents seldom set limits on how much time their children spend using media. They are often left to their own devices and use several media devices at once. Many of the older children spend significant periods of time on their cell phones after lights out (14).

Screen Time: GOOD or bad?

The positive & negative effects of screen time depend on the following factors (1):

1)Age of the child

2)Amount of time spent using screens

3)The way the media is used

4)Content of media

Some of the positive outcomes of screens for children include (14):

# Knowledge — as the internet and genuinely educational apps can be a great resource of information.

# Connectedness – Particularly for the older children being able to link up and socialize using social media. Or to access information from across the world; the web provides internationally resourced materials (3)

# Health & well being – By allowing them to feel included with their peers, resourceful and have a sense of mastery over their tools.

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# Electronic equipment can be used as a tool for learning, when parents are actively involved in the media use. An example of this would be to watch a programme with your child. Ask them questions to expand the activity and increase language and interaction (13).

# Being able to use computers, iPads etc. is expected of us. Many careers make use of digital media, not just those that work specifically with computers, as was the case in the past. Children use computers at school and some include the use of tablets within the curriculum. So mastering these devices is an important skill for children to learn (13).

# Some programs can be educational e.g. Mr Maker, Art Attack (slow paced and interactive). Programs like Mr Maker and Art Attack often aired on BBC TV, appear to have an educational value. Mr Maker is a real life character who teaches art techniques, and inspires children to make art from a range of materials. As well as explore different colours, textures and shapes.

Barney has been shown by studies to improve expressive language but has a negative effect on vocabulary. The show may, however, improve concepts, physical play, cognitive play such as problem solving, and social skills such as sharing. Again this depends on the child’s age and level of parent involvement. Teletubbies has a negative effect on vocabulary size, according to studies conducted (13).

# In today’s world, almost every current issue has a global dimension. Use of digital media, can be a means of education about other countries and cultures, in a way that is often left out of the classroom (13).

# Computers & tablets etc. allow us to retrieve and process large quantities of information. Children can learn to discern which are credible or relevant. Processing all this information involves skills used to think critically, such as taking in, filtering out and evaluating information (3; 13).

# By playing games on the computer or tablet, children learn social skills, such as how to follow rules and deal with winning and losing. This could then be applied to other situations involving their peers (13).

# Children are growing up in a time where there is increased use of online communities for learning. Digital collaboration teaches children how to take part in learning communities (3; 13).

# Use of digital media, also allows children to practice or experiment with different roles and identities, such as designers, creators, & inventors. This encourages creativity and a sense of mastery over their worlds. In the future, our success will depend on our ability to be creative and not on how much we know (as this is now accessible to everyone unlike in the past) (13).

Screen Time: Good or BAD?

We are born with all the neurons that we need for life. Neurons are nerve cells or the building blocks of the brain (8).

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Neuron or nerve cells with connecting synapses.

In early life the brain forms many connections, otherwise known as synapses. Although the amount of neurons in the brain does not increase with development, the amount of connections made takes place mostly during early life.

The more connections that are made between the neurons, the greater the potential to learn (8). From the neurons we are born with, 15 000 connections can be made within the first 3 years of a child’s life.

This is not a genetic or static process, as originally thought; but relates directly to the child’s experiences. Experiences form pathways that are strengthened by repeated use. Weaker pathways are pruned (4, 8).

Good experiences include: providing good nutrition, language exposure, a strong emotional connection with your child, engaged eye contact during communication, touch and movement. Many of these experiences are reduced as screen time increases (15).

The newborn brain triples in size by age 2 (4). This demonstrates how critical this period is for a child’s development.

Not Just Content

We have known for many years, that content viewed on TV can be potentially harmful to children’s health and well-being. It has, however, recently been revealed that flashing images seen on all electronic media can potentially over-stimulate children on a sensory level as well. This causes disorganization of their sensory systems, which can be distressing and have a negative effect on their behaviour (7; 15).

Experiments done in the sixties demonstrated the catatonic effect the TV screen has on children’s brains, causing them to shut down. This is due to the brain’s reaction to the radiant light which reflects off the screen. This is believed to be true of any electronic device with a screen (7).

Startle Effects

The TV industry got clever. To avoid losing a big chunk of their potential target market, they created startle effects to maintain children’s attention and keep them interested (7).

Startle effects are, the use of sudden changes in intensity of light, sound and camera angles. They trigger the brain into emergency mode & alert it to pay special attention to the source of the disturbance. The brain eventually habituates or identifies the false alarms and then starts to tune out again (7).

The TV industry continuously increases the number of periodic bursts of violent imagery in children’s cartoons, averaging about 16 bits of violence every 30 mins (7). This is to regain the children’s attention after it tunes out.

Younger children don’t realise that what they are seeing is not real (15). Older children and adults may know consciously that it is television, and not reality, but their sub-conscious or reptilian brain does not (7).

Reptilian versus Intellectual Brain

We have 2 parts to our brain (7):

  1. Our higher order or intellectual brain which is conscious and helps us organize our thoughts, problem solve, and other complex processes.
  2. Our reptilian brain or sub-conscious is more instinctive and protective. It is this part of our brain that prepares our body for the “fight or flight” (stress) response in potentially dangerous or threatening situations.
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Even though our intellectual brain may be aware that the images we see on TV are not real, our reptilian brain does not. This causes us to react as we would if we were in real danger (7).

This causes irregular heart beats and release of the potent hormone, Cortisol, which causes the stress response (7).

The constant stimulation caused by the startle effects causes prolonged cortisol release and the regulation of this is not able to return to normal, which has an impact on the brain and the entire body (7).

Overexposure to technologies can also lead to the following:

A study was conducted with 7450 children, involving questionnaires (Infant Toddler Symptom Checklist: ITSC) which were submitted to parents of children at 9 months and at 2 years old (7).

There was a correlation found between poor regulation and more media consumption; possibly as a coping strategy used by the parents. This then leads to less parent-infant interaction and a further increase in self regulation difficulties, which leads to more media exposure. And so the cycle continues (7).

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Real Life Experiences

Children learn better from real life experiences, than digital equipment. Real life experiences will trump digital equipment every time, as they encourage active exploration. This may improve the following:

# Eye-hand co-ordination; e.g. throwing a ball to a friend instead of simulating ball throwing on the iPad / tablet;

# Visual perceptual skills, such as depth perception which would not be developed by looking at a screen;

# Fine motor skills, which are not developed using digital equipment. Hand strength and dexterity are achieved by playing with objects and toys and ‘feeling one’s world’.

# Children and especially babies under 2 years, learn by doing. They use movement and interaction with people and objects to learn best (15).

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# According to Piaget, babies think concretely, which is the opposite of abstract thought. So when they seem to be learning something an adult or older child should understand, this is not actually what they learn or take away from the experience. They are unable to make sense of what they are seeing on TV or other screens(5;7).

# Babies tend to use their resources on the media device, rather than on how to solve a problem. They seek instant gratification and get hysterical if their problem, such as being left alone while their mother is cooking, is not solved immediately. They get used to the instant sensory boost provided by the device, and are then unable to work through the bad feelings they are having, which usually ends in tears (2; 5).

# Overuse of electronic devices limits imagination & creativity. This is because there is no need for the child to form an image in their mind of anything, as it is constantly provided for them. Imagination directly fosters and influences creativity, so with limited imagination, comes limited creativity (7; 15).

Some therapists thoughts on the matter…

To back up the research found, I knew I had to get some thoughts from therapists who see this in their day-to-day work. I also wanted to gain a South African perspective. So I asked some of my colleagues at Polkaspot Early Intervention Centre, in Cape Town, to share their views…

“From an emotional point of view, the first 2 years of life are the most important for engagement with parent and other. TV distracts from that. Young children don’t have reasoning or abstract thinking to process what they’re seeing on TV.

Social skills suffer as engagement is predominantly with a screen. It’s about moderation and content management.

Real life shows, such as animal planet are better as the pace is slower and they are truly educational.

Media use by children should be supervised & used as an interactive process with questions & discussion.

I have asked parents to reduce TV use for their children because of aggression & violence in their play. Their play is often repetitive indicating they are processing something. This is similar to the play of a child who has experienced trauma.

Content-wise children pick up bad language or swear words and repeat these without always realizing the meaning of these words”

Taryn Schneider (Play therapist)

“ I find increased digital media use seems to have some link to a rise in some children experiencing difficulty with multi-sensory processing.

There is also a decrease in children’s ability to focus, listen and follow instructions. Children seem to have more and more difficulty completing tasks, with fleeting attention. There is definitely an addictive element to digital equipment.

Due to the instant gratification they get from the media, they find it difficult to entertain themselves without screens. It also appears to have an impact on their ability to interact with others, and thus their social skills. This could be due to the fact that spending a great deal of time engaging with a screen means less time interacting with parents and other people.”

Anri Erasmus (Occupational therapist)

“I feel that the increased use of digital media, such as cell phones and tablets by children, is due to the modeling of this by the parents. Parents also model limited sustained attention as they ask their children to wait while they are on the phone, for example.

The communication exchange that occurs during interaction with media equipment is not the same as play. The interaction is often very passive with no or little engagement required. The quality of the pictures are also different to a book.

As a Speech & language therapist, I have noticed a decrease in communication, interaction, vocabulary & language in children who watch more television.

As a mother, I have also noticed that my own children experience a sensory overload when watching too much TV. This causes them to become incredibly hyperactive or bounce off the walls. Their behaviour also deteriorates and they become cheeky and defiant.

I prefer my children to watch British television such as Cbeebies, rather than American television, especially Disney, as it is slower paced and less violent”

Catherine Barry (Speech & Language therapist)

In addition to gaining a South African perspective, I am honoured to share the words of an amazing US therapist, mom, and writer: Christie from MamaOT.com.

“Ever since my oldest son was a newborn, he has loved electronic toys. And who can blame him? Those baby toys we received as gifts that sing, blink, flash, and recite the ABCs — they’re pretty attention-grabbing. And, as the parent of an extremely fussy baby, they were a life saver during those times when absolutely nothing else would keep him calm. Bouncing? Nope. Singing? Nope. Swaddling? Nope. Burping, swinging, baby-wearing, riding in the car? Nope. Blinking lights? YEP. It was as if those electronic toys were able to cast a spell on him unlike anything else.

Fast forward about a year and a half. My little guy was around 20 months old, was able to recite his ABCs like nobody’s business, and was about to become a big brother in a few short months. He was demonstrating appropriate pretend play and motor skills for his age but, whenever the electronic toys were available, he would ALWAYS choose them over playing with toys that required more active engagement. Knowing that baby brother would be joining us in a few short months, I felt like I only had a small window of opportunity left to really play with him and help him develop before all my time and energy would be devoted to managing a helpless (yet adorable) newborn. It was at this time that I made the executive decision to put away all the electronic toys. Not to be drastic. Not to be authoritative. And not to take away all the fun. But to give my almost-two-year-old the opportunity to engage with his world in a way that didn’t involve repetitively pushing buttons and consistently placing his face within an inch of blinking lights.

And you know what happened?

He changed.

It was amazing.

Within a week’s time, he was picking up toy animals and pretending to feed them. He was playing with Potato Head and pretending to make him wave and talk to other toys. He was picking up the baby doll (which had been available to him for months as we tried to prep him for baby brother) and pretending to feed it with a spoon and give it a bottle. In fact, he even began bringing the baby doll in the high chair with him during mealtimes so he could “share” his food with it. Talk about a moment that melts your heart!

A week. That’s all it took. No extra “training” or “teaching” from Mom and Dad. No new toys. No special educational programming. Just a week of playing with toys that didn’t blink and sing. A week of freeing his brain from the distraction and overstimulation brought on by electronics. And everything about his play skills changed.

It was astounding.

I’m not saying that all electronic toys are bad. But, for us, the changes that occurred when we put them away were incredible. So while I do still occasionally pull out the electronics for the fun of it, our go-to toys now tend to be those that require more than simply pushing a button or staring at blinking lights. And, for our family, this has been a change for the better!”

Christie MamaOT.com (Occupational Therapist)

The Way Forward: Where to from here?

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We cannot and should not cut technology out of our lives. So how can we prevent hampering our children’s development and capacity to learn?

Start by considering the child’s age and amount of time spent using screens. Allow your children to develop their foundation skills first, before exposing them to digital education, to allow the device to fulfil it’s purpose as being educational.

What should we do?

The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) suggests eliminating any screen time, which includes TVs, computers, tablets, phones or smart toys, for 0–2 year olds (9). A maximum of 1 hour per day for 3–5 year olds, and 2 hours per day for 6–18 year olds, is recommended (11).

We need to advocate for no marketing to under 8 year olds. They do not always understand that what an advertisement suggests, may not be true, as they do not understand the complexity and power of persuasion. Until then it is our responsibility to monitor what our children watch and are subjected to (5; 14).

Avoid putting TVs in the bedroom, if possible, as tempting as it may be (14). It is a difficult habit to break once formed, but with a TV in the bedroom, monitoring the quality and amount of TV watched is difficult. Keep an eye on what devices & websites your children are using and the duration of this media use (14).

As previously discussed, it can be beneficial if you aid your child’s learning whilst watching TV, or using other media. Ask questions, get involved, encourage interaction and language development, and even play by acting out what was seen (14).

Have a routine so children know what to expect, when, in their day and week. This should include media usage. Set clear limits for device use within this routine (14).

Try make a rule to eat dinner and other meals together without the use of any media. It encourages family bonding and interaction (14). Even if it’s just a couple of times a week.

Have a curfew for media use and stick to it. Have a place for all devices at bedtime, including cell phones. Children should avoid media devices 2 hours before bedtime, as it can cause sensory overload and may make it difficult for them to fall asleep (14). Scary content could also disrupt their sleep by causing nightmares.

Encourage your children to use media in the same way you would encourage them to act in the ‘real world’: in a responsible, social, careful and creative way.

More & more studies are being done about the impact of media on children. The majority of these studies appear to be in America, and many are preliminary research, the long term effects of which we are still discovering. More research is needed within the context of our diverse South African culture.

Play Every Day

Play is children’s main occupation. Play is not merely a practice for adult activities or roles, but an occupation and meaningful activity, in and of itself. Not all children that pretend to be a fireman, want to be a fireman. They are therefore not rehearsing this for the future but rather playing this role now, for it’s present value. It’s about the taking part and not the outcome. (2).

“Nothing lights up the brain like play” Stuart Brown (National institute for Play, 2). 3D play fires up the cerebellum; sending impulses to the frontal lobes and developing executive functioning and contextual memory. Play deprivation has a negative effect on brain development (2).

Humans are unique, in that we are designed to play throughout our life span. Try and include play in all parts of your life, rather than setting aside time for play. You will have a better, more empowered life (2).

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The basis of human trust is developed through play signals. Play signals include vocal, facial, body and gestural reactions. We begin to lose these signals culturally and otherwise as adults (2).

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According to the research by Stuart Brown and others, play is as important to survival for children, as the prevention of heart disease is for adults. Children that do not have an opportunity to play for various reasons, always show a delay in development (2).

Play allows children to grow into happy, well adjusted adults. It teaches them to apply social skills; cope with stress; and build cognitive skills like problem solving; in a way that TV never could (2).

Reference List

  1. Blanchard, J. & Moore, T. (2010). The digital world of young children: Impact on emergent literacy. Arizona State University, USA: Pearson Foundation
  2. Brown, S. (Speaker) (2008). Play is more than fun. [YouTube Video] TedTalk. Retrieved April 21, 2014, from http://video.ted.com/talk/podcast/2008P/None/StuartBrown_2008P-light.mps
  3. Carpenter, S. In the digital age, experts pause to examine effects on kids. Monitor on Psychology Journal. December 2000, Vol 31, No. 11
  4. Christakis, D. (Speaker) (2011). Media and Children. [YouTube Video] TedxRanier. Retrieved March 21 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoT7qH_uVNo.
  5. Gregory Thomas, S. (2007). Buy, Buy Baby: How big business captures the ultimate consumer – your baby or toddler. Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins Publishers
  6. Kleeman, D. Studying the ripple effect of kid’s digital media usage. Retrieved 16/03/2014, from; http://kidscreen.com/2013/11/07/studying-the-ripple-effects-of-kids-digital-media-usage/#ixzz2vmK8en00
  7. Mercogliano, C. & Debus, K. (1999). An Interview with Joseph Chilton Pearce. Journal of Family Life Magazine Vol. 5 #1 1999
  8. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: Harvard University. (2011). Experiences build brain architecture: 3 Core concepts in early development. [YouTube Video]. Retrieved April 21 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNNsN9IJkws.
  9. Radesky, J.S., Zuckerman, B. & Christakis, D.A. (2014). Infant self-regulation and early childhood media exposure. Official Journal of the American Association of Pediatrics. 133 (5). DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013–2367
  10. Rideout,V. (2013). Zero to Eight: Children’s media use in America 2013. USA: Common Sense Media.
  11. Rowan, Cris. (2014). 10 Reasons why handheld devices should be banned for children under the age of 12. Retrieved 16/03/2014, from; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cris-rowan/10-reasons-why-handheld-devices-should-be-banned_b_4899218.html
  12. Shore, R., P.H.D.(2008). The Power of Pow! Wham!: Children, digital media and our nations future; Three Challenges for the Coming Decade. New York, USA: The Joan Ganz Cooney Centre for Educational Media & Research, Inc.
  13. Strasburger, V.C & Hogan,M.J. (2013). Children, Adolescents & the Media: Council on Communication and Media. USA: American Academy of Pediatrics. 132/5/958
  14. Zachry, A.H. (2014). Retro Baby: Cut back on all the gear and boost your baby’s development with more than 100 time-tested activities. USA: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Other Sources

  1. Anri Erasmus, Occupational Therapist (2014). Interview conducted on 27/04/2014.
  2. Catherine Barry, Speech & Language therapist (2014). Interview conducted on 27/04/2014.
  3. Christie-Mamma OT: Tips and tricks for those who care for children. Retrieved 15/03/2014, from; http://mamaot.com/ and messages on Facebook on 11/10/2014.
  4. Taryn Schneider, Play therapist (2014). Interview conducted on 15/04/2014.

Image Credits

  1. ‘Mesmerising’: SkippyJon- http://www.imcreator.com/images/mesmerizing
  2. ‘Dell Tablet and XPS launch London’: Dell’s Official Flickr Page — http://www.imcreator.com/images/dell-tablet-and-xps-launch-london
  3. ‘Scratch Workshop’: Waag Society — http://www.imcreator.com/images/scratch-workshop
  4. ‘Neurons’: G.Finder — http://www.flickr.com/photos/goalfinder/6943612247/
  5. ‘Screaming girl’: Apdk — http://www.flickr.com/photos/62337512@N00/4335060317/
  6. ‘Lazy Afternoon’: Biscotte — http://www.imcreator.com/free/people/lazy
  7. Walt Disney’s Small World’: Mamnaimie — http://www.imcreator.com/free/people/walt-disneys-small-world
  8. Slide 19 & 20 ‘Evolving man’: Patrizia Soliani — http://www.flickr.com/photos/55524309@N05/5519745603
  9. Slide 21 ‘Joy of Family’: Anieto2k — http://www.imcreator.com/free/people/joy-of-family
  10. ‘Old Shoe Woman’: Judy Baxter- https://www.flickr.com/photos/judybaxter/149201476/

Video links

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoT7qH_uVNo.
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNNsN9IJkws.
  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY

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