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Tablets are breeding a generation of Angry Birds-playing babies

Since Apple unveiled the first iPad almost four years ago, a slew of tech companies including Nokia and Microsoft have been jostling for a chunk of the tablet market. Parents are prime targets for the tablets and smartphones sweeping the consumer landscape (35% of Americans now own a tablet, while 56% use a smartphone); they cling to the devices as easy, portable forms of entertainment for their kids. In fact, in the US, many children are learning to run apps before they can even walk, according to a new study from Common Sense Media.

Thirty-eight percent of American toddlers under age two have used a mobile device for media, which includes playing games, using apps and watching video. This compares to 10% two years ago, when Common Sense Media conducted the first stage of the survey.

“The past two years have seen an explosion in the use of mobile media platforms and apps among young children,” the survey explains. “In fact, almost as many children now have their own tablets (7%) as parents did two years ago (8%).”

The trend is expected to continue, with global tablet shipments expected to grow by 53.4% this year from 2012.

By age 8, American children spend an average of one hour and 55 minutes a day in front of a screen, according to the study. Television is still the main form of distraction (more than one-third of children have TVs in their bedrooms, including 16% of children under the age of 2), but smartphones, tablets and e-readers are quickly gaining ground.

Less clear is whether these new forms of media are unifying or divisive for families. Twenty-eight percent of parents surveyed said their family spends less time together because of this higher use of media, while 12% said media use allows them to spend more time together.

In some cases, the interactivity of the devices could make them more educational than television-watching. Among the mind-numbing games like Angry Birds listed by parents as popular with their kids were more instructional apps like Tiny Dentist, which allows the user to clean, extract and fix patients’ teeth; Stack the Countries, an interactive geography game; and Home Design, a virtual home-building and decorating app.

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