Infant simulators — robotic babies given to teenage students in classes in many Seattle-area school districts — might not be effective in reducing teen pregnancy, according to a study from Australia.
To help discourage teen pregnancy, many students in the Seattle area and nationally are given lifelike, robot babies that cry throughout the night. Unlike eggs or plants used to represent babies in some human-development classes, these dolls require feeding, burping and diaper changes. Like real infants, sometimes even that doesn’t stop their crying.
The idea is to discourage students from becoming teenage parents by showing them the difficulties of having a child.
But a new study, done with 3,000 teenage girls in Western Australia, suggests that the robot-baby programs may increase pregnancy rather than reduce it.
About half the 3,000 girls took part in Australia’s Virtual Infant Parenting program, and the rest served as a control group.
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Among the students in the program, 17 percent became pregnant at least once before age 20. In the control group, only 11 percent did.
The study comes at a time when the birthrate among teenagers is lower than it’s been in 20 years. In the United States, there are about 22 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Australia, there are about 15 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19.
Still, the study raises questions about whether programs using these robot babies work — here as well as in Australia.
The Australia program was adapted from one in the United States, formerly known as “Baby Think It Over” and now called “RealCare Baby 3.” Along with Seattle, area schools districts that use RealCare Baby 3 include Highline, Everett and Kent.
In Australia’s Virtual Infant Parenting program, which started in the late 1990s, students learn about sexual health, the difficulties of being pregnant and a parent, and how to care for an infant. Like the American program, it’s intended to prevent teenage pregnancy.
In the American program, students are given dolls that cry and coo, and measure and report how well students cares for them — tracking how long they’re in a car seat, how often they’re changed and whether they’ve been shaken or held in a wrong position. That data is transferred to a teacher.
The doll’s creator, Realityworks, says more than half the school districts in the country have purchased its products.
The researchers behind the new study (who are from several Australian universities) offer several reasons for why the infant simulators may be ineffective. The Australian program was directed only at girls, they say, even though boys are also involved in making decisions about relationships and sexual intercourse. They also say that by the time students reach secondary school, they may have made decisions about parenthood, so intervention may not be effective by that time.
The researchers also argue that the girls with the dolls receive attention from their peers and families, reinforcing the positive aspects of being a teen parent and diminishing the negatives.
“No infant simulator, irrespective of its cost and programming, can convey the effects of a real child,” said Julie Quinlivan, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia, in a prepared statement.
In Seattle schools, the RealCare Baby 3 dolls are used in child- and human-development classes and are a small portion of the course, said Susan Grant, who oversees the program districtwide. Students learn about the stages of human developmental, the history of parenting and different options for careers and families. Unlike the Australian programs, any student can enroll in the classes.
“The whole package is important in using these dolls,” said Grant, who formerly taught at Ingraham High School. “They’re not just used in isolation, where we say ‘take this home and think about being a parent.’ There is much more to the decision-making process.”
Grant said she hasn’t yet read the study. And though she doesn’t have any data, she said many students have told her that the dolls make them think harder about having children.
“The majority of the time students took the doll home, they would come back with phrases like ‘I’m not ready for this,’ or ‘I didn’t have any idea of what parenting was about,’ ” she said. “I think they saw the impact that the responsibility has on their own life.”
Realityworks, which is based in Wisconsin, said programs like the one in Australia, which is an adaptation of RealCare Baby 3, “are not reflective of the program’s efficacy nor are they representative of our products offering.”
The company said it has received numerous accolades from educators and students for portraying the impacts of having children.