Study Using Baby Simulators Fails to Reduce Teen Pregnancy

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

An Australian program based on the US RealityWorks class (also known as Baby Think it Over), a pregnancy prevention program, is being administered in schools. Called the Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) program, the course includes educational sessions, a workbook, a video presentation of girls talking about their experiences, and caring for a simulated baby over one weekend.

In a paper explaining the idea, published in The Lancet medical journal, the baby simulator is a doll that needs to be fed, cries, burps, and needs to be rocked and changed. The device also records any mishandling of the “child,” length of crying episodes, numbers of diaper changes, and general care.

Infant simulators are not a new idea in developed countries and are being used increasingly in lower- and middle-income countries. But there is a no reliable evidence that the program is effective. Scientists have studied the repercussions the course has had on teenagers’ intentions to get pregnant or their attitudes toward pregnancy, but no trials have measured the plan’s impact on decreasing teenage pregnancies.

Fifty-seven schools in Australia were chosen to participate in the study. The schools were placed randomly in either the VIP program (1,267 girls), which was taught by school nurses over a period of six days or to take part in the standard health education course (1,567 girls). The research team linked the data to hospital records and abortion clinics. The girls were aged 13-15 when the study began, and they were followed until the age of 20.

Compared to the girls who took the health education course, the VIP group had higher rates of pregnancy and abortion. Eight percent of the girls in the VIP group had at least one birth, but 4% of the control group did the same. Along the same lines, 9% of the VIP girls had an abortion compared to 6% in the control group.

“Our study shows that the pregnancy prevention program delivered in Western Australia, which involves an infant simulator, does not reduce the risk of pregnancy in teenage girls. In fact, the risk of pregnancy is actually increased compared to girls who didn’t take part in the intervention” says lead author Dr Sally Brinkman, Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia, Adelaide, Australia. “Similar programs are increasingly being offered in schools around the world, and evidence now suggests they do not have the desired long-term effect of reducing teenage pregnancy. These interventions are likely to be an ineffective use of public resources for pregnancy prevention.”

Jerico Mandybur, writing for Mashable, who calls the virtual baby devices “creepy robot babies,” reports that some of the study’s subjects seemed to like having the babies and got attention from friends and family when they were seen with their infants.

But other young girls in the program were not really into taking care of their robot children and hid them, blocked their sounds, and put them in places where they would not be disturbed by them. Professor Julie Quinlivan of the University of Notre Dame, Sydney said, “the cure for teenage pregnancy is more difficult than a magic doll.”

In the UK, experts say that the 50% drop in teenage pregnancies since 1998 may have come about because of the most fundamental and practical methods, such as non-judgemental relationship advice and inexpensive, reliable contraception, according to the National Health Service (NHS).

The NHS points out several issues surrounding the study. The findings were based on Australian teenagers’ social and lifestyle factors and therefore may differ from those same factors for girls in other countries. The study would have had differents outcomes if the research had centered on girls of a different age. And the experiments included only girls, though boys play an equal part in unwanted pregnancies. The NHS said that the US includes both boys and girls in similar programs.