Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
A virtual baby identical to the one in the study.
Enlarge / A virtual baby identical to the one in the study.

Babies can be a hindrance. Their utter helplessness and disappointing lack of communication skills often leave new parents sleep deprived and playing frantic guessing games amid deafening cries (usually from the baby). Such exhausting pains of parenthood should be enough to deter any unprepared teen from getting frisky too early — or so the makers of a baby simulator called “Baby Think It Over” seemed to think. But those makers may have their own rethink.

The lifelike dolls are needy and a little creepy to boot, but totally bad at deterring teens from getting pregnant, according to the first randomized, controlled trial on the popular sex education tool. The study, which involved more than 2,800 Australian girls between the ages of 13 and 15, even hinted that the dolls may increase the risk of teenage pregnancy.

Of the 1,267 teens who spent a weekend tending, burping, changing and feeding the robot babies, 17 percent (or 210 girls) had at least one pregnancy by age 20. That’s a small jump from the pregnancy rate of the 1,567 girls in the control group who received a standard school curriculum on sex education and parenting. Their pregnancy rate was only 11 percent (or 168 girls).

Whether that increased pregnancy rate would hold up in larger studies is unclear, but one thing is pretty clear: The bone babies certainly didn’t lead to fewer teen pregnancies, as Wisconsin-based maker RealityWorks suggests. The study results should prompt a rethink by educators and health professionals, as the droid babies are currently widely used in schools, churches and community groups in 89 countries – mostly high-income, but also low- and middle-income. RealityWorks claims that 67 percent of US school districts use the high-tech dolls.

“Despite the theoretical rationale for possible effectiveness, the company’s claims, and the benefits cited in descriptive studies, our results suggest that the use of baby simulators in schools is not having the desired long-term effect in reducing teen pregnancy rates, and is likely to have a significant impact on the number of teen pregnancies. “ineffective use of public resources aimed at pregnancy prevention,” concluded the study authors, led by researchers at the University of Western Australia. They reported their data and analysis Aug. 25 in The Lancet.

Their study isn’t the first to suggest that the robots may not be effective in reducing teenage pregnancy rates. Several small-scale studies also showed no positive effects. One that looked at the short-term results of just 109 girls found that some teens enjoyed caring for the newborn simulators and the experience increased their interest in becoming a teenage parent.

The wireless robots are programmed to have the same needs as a 6-week-old baby, requiring regular feeding, changing and comforting at all times. They cry loudly when they need something and coo when they are satisfied. The simulators also keep track of the quality of their care, for example if they have been in their car seat for too long or have been shaken violently. Some teens tried to mute or shut down the babies, while others had fun.

Critics worry that the crash course in raising a droid could actually teach coping skills to teens already at risk of becoming early parents. In yet another small study, some girls said they expected caring for a real baby to be easier than caring for their robot, because human babies are much cuter and ultimately interact with their caretakers.

The Lancet2016. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30384-1 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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