Assigning Robotic Babies to Teenage Girls Found to Increase Pregnancy and Birth Rates


Project 365 #333: 291113 Baby, Baby, Baby! / Pete

August 26, 2016; Wall Street Journal

The findings from a study performed in Western Australia and published in The Lancet medical journal last week should remind us that just because we think a social intervention should work does not mean it will; in fact, it might make the problem worse.

So it was with those creepy robotic faux babies, developed by NASA engineer Rick Jurmain and assigned to teenage girls to simulate the stress of mothering an infant. As it turns out, not only do such programs not prevent pregnancy, but they actually cause rates to increase.

“The program was supposed to put students off, and then they would take extra steps not to get pregnant,” said Sally Brinkman of the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia, an author of the study. “Unfortunately, and surprisingly for us, the intervention we can say definitely didn’t work and it actually seemed to increase the pregnancy rates. It just didn’t really work in putting the students off.”

The program is in use across the globe, administered by churches, schools, and community groups in 89 countries. RealityWorks, the name under which Jurmain manufactures the dolls, claims that 67 percent of school districts in the U.S. use them.

The study was performed on an adaptation of the U.S. RealityWorks program, known in Australia as Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP). The study looked at 3,000 schoolgirls aged between 13 and 15, half of whom received standard sex education and the rest of whom were assigned robo-babies in a parenting exposure program. (RealityWorks Chief Executive Timm Boettcher says that the program where the study was conducted was being carried out improperly.)

According to medical records for the girls up to 20 years of age, the robo-baby-exposed girls had a pregnancy rate of 17 percent by the time they turned 20, compared with 11 percent among those who didn’t. Other, earlier, smaller studies also found no positive effects on pregnancy prevention. Lastly, the girls who cared for the artificial surrogates showed signs of being slightly less likely to terminate their pregnancies than those who did not.

As for why this reverse correlation might have occurred, Brinkman said many of the girls reported that caring for the infants was a positive experience overall that brought families together.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Steven Byers

    “Cause” seems too strong here. “As it turns out, not only do such programs not prevent pregnancy, but they actually cause rates to increase.” Yes, any intervention in a complex system will produce unintended consequences.

  • Realityworks, Inc.

    The Lancet’s study is not a representation of our curriculum and simulator learning modality but the researchers’ “adaptation” and is consequently not reflective of our product nor its efficacy. The RealCare Baby® Program is a combination of curriculum and hands-on aids, and if it is being tested and judged for effectiveness, it should be judged in its entirety. The “adaptation” used in the study was developed by Australia’s Swan Hills Division of General Practice, the Coastal and Wheatbelt Public Health Unit and the North Metropolitan Population Health Unit. The class time designated for teaching the adaptation was a mere 2.5 hours. The RealCare Program is 14 hours of class time, learning activities and a prolonged take-home simulator experience. This study is not measuring Realityworks’ program and infant simulator but – as stated in the study – is investigating the effect of Australia’s Virtual Infant Parenting program.

    Coincidentally, during the times of this study, Australia had implemented a “Baby Bonus Maternity Payment” with the hopes of increasing the country’s fertility rates. A lump sum was paid to families following the birth of a child. They deemed this program successful with a 12.8% increase of births to mothers ages 20-24 years; they also saw that the program served as an incentive for mothers in their early twenties.