School intervention programs with "baby simulators" designed to prevent teen pregnancy may actually be producing the opposite effect, a new study in Australia revealed on Aug. 25.
In an effort to reduce rates of teen pregnancy, some female students are enrolled in programs where they interact with infant dolls and participate in sessions that mimic what having a baby might be like.
However, a team of researchers from the University of Western Australia has discovered that girls who take part in these programs were about 36 percent more likely to become pregnant earlier — with at least one abortion or birth before the age of 20 — compared with students in schools with the standard curriculum.
Led by Associate Professor Sally Brinkman, the team of experts followed more than 2,800 teenage girls who were aged 13 to 15 at 57 schools in Australia until they turned 20 years old. The baby dolls were designed to behave and look like real babies. Because of technological advancements, the baby dolls can burp and cry, require diapering, care and feeding throughout the sessions.
Afterwards, a set of lessons that includes workbooks, education sessions and a documentary of teen moms talking about their lives supplement the experience. These tools are intended to help students explore the emotional, physical, financial and social consequences of becoming pregnant early and dealing with unplanned parenthood, doll manufacturer Reality Works said.
In the end, however, Brinkman says the school intervention programs "definitely did not work" because they only seemed to increase the pregnancy rate.
"We were very surprised," Brinkman told ABC News. She says it was one thing to get findings that say the program does not work, but it's another to get results that show the opposite of the intended effect.
In fact, the rate for live birth among girls who took part in the baby simulator program was 8 percent, while the rate for the control group was 4 percent — which is doubled, the study said.
What's more, the baby simulator program appeared to convince those teenage girls to give birth rather than seeking abortion, according to Brinkman. About 54 percent of the teenage girls who pretended to be moms chose abortion when they got pregnant, compared with 60 percent of the control group.
Brinkman says the results of the study counter the intention of the baby simulator program. She says the findings should make schools think twice before employing these programs in their efforts to prevent teen pregnancy.
Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy says teens may find it difficult to take care of the simulated baby, but they would not easily grasp the connection between that and the much more difficult task of handling a real baby. He says some teens actually believe that the fake baby is more challenging than a real one.
On the other hand, Timm Boettcher, the CEO of Reality Works told ABC News that the program in the study was far different than what they had recommended. He says that the study did not represent the entire curriculum and learning modality applied in schools.
Boettcher says the baby simulator program known as RealCare Program combines hands-on aids and curriculum, and entails 14 hours of class time with different learning activities and take home simulator experience.
He says that if the curriculum is being tested for effectiveness, it should be judged in its entirety.
The study was conducted in western Australia, but it is implemented in 89 countries across the world. Meanwhile, details of the new report are published in the journal The Lancet.
Photo: Gustavo Fischer | Flickr