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Forcing Teens to Carry Around Fake Babies Doesn't Stop Pregnancy–It Increases It

According to one study, the terrifying baby robots they hand out in health class to scare teenagers out of sex are extremely ineffective.
A collection of robots that have the realistic appearance of babies
Screenshot via YouTube

According to a 2016 study, girls who play pretend mommy in infant simulator programs designed to discourage teen pregnancy are actually more likely to get pregnant. Researchers in Australia found that 17 percent of the girls who carried computerized "Baby Think It Over" dolls got pregnant before they turned 20, compared to ten percent of those who did not.

Almost 3000 girls between the ages of 13 and 15 were followed in this randomized, controlled trial. Between 2003 and 2006, 1,267 girls participated in the infant simulator program, while 1,567 girls received a standard health education. Compared with the girls who did not undergo the program, the study's authors wrote, "a higher proportion of girls in the [infant simulator] group recorded at least one birth (97 of 1267 in the intervention group vs. 67 of 1567 in the control group) or at least one abortion as the first pregnancy event (113 vs 101)."


Read more: 'She Didn't Say Vagina': Sex Ed in Fundamentalist Christian Homeschool

This is the first time researchers have offered evidence of the dolls' long-term effects by tracking actual pregnancy rates. Previous studies focused on the attitudes and opinions of the teens who carried the electronic babies; they also found that these programs were not effective.

Sally Brinkman, one of the authors of the report and an associate professor at the University of Adelaide, told Australian media that, in general, most of the students liked carrying the interactive dolls, which cry when they need something or coo when they're happy. "Some became extremely attached to their fake babies," she said. "They got a lot of attention from family friends while they had the baby."

Teen pregnancy and birth rates in developed countries have declined drastically in the last couple of decades, but it's still an issue. In Australia, where the study originated, the birth rate among teenage women was 13 births per 1000 girls in 2015. It's a little higher in the US, at 22 births.

Doug Taylor is the chief program officer at the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (SC Campaign). He tells Broadly that his organization primarily follows the guidelines outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Adolescent Health, which has identified more than 30 evidence-based programs to reduce teen pregnancy.

The "Baby Think It Over" dolls have never been on that list, he says. "We've certainly had schools and other areas in the state that have used those, but we have been reluctant to fund a program to purchase and use them with the resources that we get because there really hasn't been any evidence to demonstrate that they are effective."

The challenge with these doll-based programs, Taylor says, is that teens carry the simulated babies for a short period of time. "They may get a sense of, 'Oh boy, I don't want to do this.' But they're adolescents; the next week, they may have forgotten the entire experience or it doesn't weigh as heavily."

In South Carolina, the birth rate in 2014 was 28.5 per 1000 girls. One of the ways the SC Campaign is working to reduce teen pregnancy is to make sure adolescents receive information they need to make informed decisions, and that they receive that information more than once during their school years. "It can't be just a one-time proposition," Taylor says. Even in the programs recommended by the Office of Adolescent Health, long-term sustainability is a concern. Sometimes the impact of even the most effective sex health curriculum can wear off years later, he says.

The company that manufactures the Baby Think It Over dolls has since changed the name of the product to RealCare Baby. According to its website, the "robot" baby offers lessons on teen pregnancy prevention, parenting skills, child abuse prevention, sex education, and more.