- Theory behind the dolls, used across the world, was that looking a the baby for a few days would expose teenage girls to the reality of parenthood
- Trial to assess effectiveness involved nearly 3,000 girls aged 13 to 15
- Researchers: The attention given to the girls when they were looking after the dolls encouraged them to have a baby
Lifelike baby dolls designed to deter teenage girls from having children actually raise pregnancy rates, a major study suggests.
The teenage pregnancy prevention programme, which is used in schools around the world, does not seem to work, according to the first proper trial to test it.
Girls who took part were more, not less, likely to become pregnant compared to those who did not take part.
The theory behind the lifelike dolls was that looking after a baby for a few days would expose teenage girls to the reality of teenage parenthood
The Virtual Infant Parenting programme, and others like it, involve a £1,000 ($ 1,300) doll which cries when it needs to be fed, burped, rocked or changed.
It measures and reports if the doll is mishandled, left to cry, or left unchanged.
The theory was that looking after the baby for a few days would expose girls to the reality of teenage parenthood.
But the new trial, which involved nearly 3,000 girls aged 13 to 15, found pregnancy rates actually went up.
The study authors, whose work is published in the Lancet medical journal, suspect the attention given to the girls when they were looking after the dolls encouraged them to have a baby.
Dr Sally Brinkman, of the University of Western Australia, said: ‘Our study shows the pregnancy prevention programme, which involves an infant simulator, does not reduce the risk of pregnancy in teenage girls.
‘In fact, the risk of pregnancy is actually increased compared to girls who didn’t take part in the intervention.
‘Similar programmes are increasingly being offered in schools around the world, and evidence now suggests they do not have the desired long-term effect of reducing teenage pregnancy.
‘These interventions are likely to be an ineffective use of public resources for pregnancy prevention.’
Girls who took part were more, not less, likely to become pregnant compared to those who did not take part, Australian researchers found
Half of the girls who took part in the study used the dolls for six days, and the others were simply given normal classroom sexual education.
They were then tracked until the age of 20. The authors found 8 per cent of the girls given a doll had at least one birth, and 9 per cent had an abortion.
In the group not given the doll, 4 per cent had a baby and 6 per cent had an abortion.
In Britain, where different areas set their own sexual education curriculum, several areas have used similar programmes.
Schools in Birmingham, West Sussex and South Yorkshire have used virtual babies in the past.
But not all have been impressed.
The teenage pregnancy rates have fallen in recent years for a variety of reasons – but experts say the dolls are unlikely to be the reason why
Nicole Chavaudra, teenage pregnancy strategy co-ordinator in Rotherham, oversaw a similar plan in 2007.
Writing in the British Medical Journal at the time, she said: ‘For many young people at particular risk of becoming teenage parents the attention received whilst caring for the doll reinforces the desire for parenthood.
FIRMS HIT BACK AT CLAIMS
A major firm which makes the dolls insisted tonight its programme was effective – and claimed the researchers had not followed its curriculum.
The Virtual Infant Parenting programme used in the trial was adapted from the US scheme ‘Baby Think It Over’, which is made by Realityworks.
Realityworks CEO Timmothy Boettcher said the baby simulators were extremely effective in parenting education programs and to deter teen pregnancy when used in conjunction with the company’s curriculum.
He told the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘I am flattered that people are looking at new ways to use parts of our product.
‘It, however, is not the same as using the product we sell in the way we provide it.’
‘These resources may be better utilised in focusing on developing the aspirations of young people at risk of becoming young parents, and on delivery of comprehensive sex, relationships and parenting education programmes.
‘The use of an expensive electronic simulator does not demonstrate the emotional elements associated with a human baby and pregnancy, and programme leaders should consider the outcomes they hope to achieve before resources are allocated.’
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at pregnancy advisory group BPAS, said last night: ‘Schools make their own decisions about what they think is appropriate for their pupils, and clearly there are companies supplying these dolls for school use and educators who use them.
‘There have long been reservations about their effectiveness, and probably a lot depends on the context in which they are used.
‘The teenage pregnancy rate in this country has dropped dramatically in recent years for a variety of reasons – it’s very unlikely to be related to these dolls.’