Do Robot Babies Really Prevent Young Pregnancies?

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A new study suggests “virtual infants” do little to keep teenage girls out of the family way.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: Realityworks)

If you’re a parent, you know that taking care of a little kid can be both wonderful and awful at the same time. There’s laughter, learning, and lots and lots of bodily fluids. And screaming. And crying. Sometimes biting. It’s not for the faint of heart.

All of which is to say, it would seem logical that putting someone through a simulation of the baby experience before they’re ready to be parents—say, when they’re teenagers—ought to work as a kind of psychological birth control. But “baby simulator” programs don’t curb teen pregnancy rates, and might even backfire, according to new study published in the Lancet.

Parenting simulators have a long, weird history in the United States, starting with “egg babies.” Common alternatives include sacks of flour or sugar, bottles of water, and infant dolls. But for top-of-the-line baby simulators, there’s no substitute for the RealCare Baby 3, a crying, burping, pooping, and often hungry robotic entity designed to show teens what taking care of a little kid is really like. Though the evidence of its effectiveness is mixed, the Baby 3 is used in countries around the world.

Despite its promise, Virtual Infant Parenting did not work as intended.

It was with that in mind that researchers led by Sally Brinkmann, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia, decided to test robot babies on 2,834 Australia girls ages 13 to 15. Out of 56 participating schools, 27 were chosen at random to use the Virtual Infant Parenting program, a variant of the RealCare Baby curriculum. The remaining schools got standard health classes. Unlike most other studies, Brinkman and her team tracked each participant for up to seven years afterward in order to find out if she’d subsequently gotten pregnant.

Despite its promise, VIP did not work as intended. Of those who took part in the program, 17 percent became pregnant by the time they turned 20, compared with 11 percent of those who were taught according to a standard curriculum. After adjusting for socioeconomic status, family characteristics, education, and other factors, the team estimates those in the VIP program had 36 percent higher odds of getting pregnant compared to the control group.

“These results need to be considered in light of the study’s limitations,” the authors write. Still, “our results suggest that the use of infant simulators in schools does not have the desired long-term effect of reducing teenage pregnancy, and is likely to be an ineffective use of public resources aimed at pregnancy prevention.”

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