An attempt to lower teen pregnancy rates in WA using crying robot babies backfired spectacularly

A Japanese robot baby named Noby. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Give a teenage girl a robot baby, to show her just how hard looking after a baby really is, and she is more, not less, likely to get pregnant.

A large trial of a teenage pregnancy prevention program run in Western Australia backfired, according to the results of a trial published in the medical journal The Lancet.

The infant simulator doll cries when it needs to be fed, burped, rocked or changed and measures and reports on mishandling, crying time, the number of changes and general care.

The authors of the Australian trial warn that the robot intervention is likely to be an ineffective use of public funds to prevent teenage pregnancy.

The Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) program is an Australian adaptation of the US RealityWorks, often referred to as Baby Think It Over.

The use of infant simulator program is common in developed countries and their use is increasing in low and middle income countries.

But there has been, until now, no evidence of their effectiveness. While some studies have looked at the effect on intentions to get pregnant, or attitudes to pregnancy, no randomised trials have measured the impact on pregnancy.

A total of 57 schools in Western Australia took part in the study. More than 2800 girls were aged 13 to 15 at the start of the study and they were followed until the age of 20.

They found those who did the program had higher rates of pregnancy (17%) compared to those who did not (11%), a small but statistically significant increase.

“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,” says lead author Dr Sally Brinkman of the University of Western Australia’s Telethon Kids Institute.

“In fact, the risk of pregnancy is actually increased compared to girls who didn’t take part in the intervention.”

Writing in a linked Comment, Professor Julie A Quinlivan of the University of Notre Dame discusses the possible reasons why the intervention didn’t.

“The cure for teenage pregnancy is more difficult than a magic doll,” she says.

“We have to address both mothers and fathers. Program need to start in infancy. Investment in vulnerable children is needed to entice these adolescents from the path of premature parenthood into brighter futures. We cannot afford the quick fix, especially when it doesn’t work.”

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