It sounds simple. Give girl a baby doll. The girl cares for the doll - it needs as much love as a real baby. And the experience lowers the risk of her getting pregnant. But it doesn't work - a study has shown.
Baby simulators are getting more and more common. Originally invented in the United States, the robotic dolls have now made it into schools and other educational institutions, and youth centers in almost 100 countries worldwide. Girls and young women use them in parenting programs called Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) to learn what it really means to care for an infant.
And the simulators are just as demanding as a human baby. They scream. They need to be cradled, fed and diapered. They react sensitively if they are held incorrectly - such as lacking head support, abrupt movement, or a lack of care and food.
Responsibility means full dedication
This is supposed to sensitize teenagers and young women to what it means to take responsibility for a tiny human - the effort and pain - 24/7.
Teenagers who want to try the simulator experiment have to be fully committed. They receive a wristband with a chip, which activates a sensor at the baby robot. Only authorized persons are able to care for the child. This prevents the teenagers from farming out the doll to babysitter while they go partying for instance.
The idea behind it is to reduce the number of adolescent pregnancies - meaning pregnancies of girls under the age of 20.
More pregnancies despite Virtual Infant Parenting
But an evaluation of an Australian VIP program has shown the dolls do not necessarily lead to more conservative family planning.
Fifty-seven schools participated in the study, with 1267 female students taking part in the VIP program. A further 1567 students were in a control group, which received a more traditional health and sex education. All students were between 13 and 15 years old when the study started. They study followed them until they turned 20.
The results are surprising: It looks as though the simulator dolls achieved the opposite effect of what the educators had had in mind for the young, virtual moms.
Led by Sally Brinkman of the University of Western Australia in Adelaide, the researchers have published their findings in the journal "The Lancet."
Brinkmann says the VIP group showed a higher number of pregnancies and abortions than the control group. Eight percent of the girls in the VIP-group gave birth to at least one child - as compared to four percent in the control group.
Nine percent of the girls who participated in the VIP program had an abortion. That figure for the control group was only six percent.
Enforcing the mother-role
It suggests the risk of teenage pregnancy after the use of baby simulator dolls does not go down but up.
The study authors say the data leads them to conclude that investing into VIP programs is not the best use of public money if the aim is to reduce adolescent pregnancies.
In a commentary on the study, Julie Quinlivan, a pediatrician at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle, Western Australia, says more needs to be done to work with parents to offer more guidance to girls and young women who are especially at risk of teen pregnancy.
Quinlivan says teenage girls who take care of a baby simulator often get positive feedback and encouragement from friends and family when they do a good job. And because this happens during a time in life, when the girls long for encouragement and responsibility, taking care of a doll could easily result in an idealized perception of motherhood.
Baby simulators are used in Germany too. But the Australian study raises doubts about their effectiveness
No random selection
But apart from such positive emotional experiences with simulator dolls, there may also be a much simpler explanation for the higher birthrate among the participants of the VIP program. It may have to do with the study's statistical methodology. The participant rate in the schools with the VIP program was 58 percent. In the control group schools it was 45 percent. The study does not provide for any conclusions involving those teenagers, who simply chose not to take part in the program.
Since participation was voluntary, girls who were generally more interested in the issue of motherhood may have been more likely to want to take part and were perhaps overrepresented in the VIP program. Those students with other recreational interests may simply have ignored the call for participants.
Training parents with robotic babies
Baby simulators are not only there for teenagers. Adults can also use them when preparing for parenthood. Besides regular baby simulators, there are special models on the market. One simulator doll is designed to show the effects of potentially fatal baby-shaking.
LED lights indicate brain damage, the child can suffer, when shaken rather than gently rocked. Other dolls are designed to show expectant parents what damage alcohol or drug abuse can cause to unborn or newborn children.