“Robot” babies fail to prevent teenage pregnancy

Dr Sally Brinkman with one of the virtual babies. Source: Australian Science Media Centre

A randomised trial conducted in WA schools has had some surprising results

Nearly 3,000 school girls aged 13-15 across the state participated in a trial to assess the Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) program – an Australian adaptation of a US program called RealityWorks.

About half of the sample (1267) were randomly allocated to receive the VIP program, while the remaining students received the standard health education curriculum (1567).

Those in the VIP program attended educational sessions, completed a workbook, watched a documentary about teenage mothers, and cared for an infant simulator over the weekend.

The infant “robot” was a doll that cried when it needed to be fed, burped, rocked or changed, measuring and reporting on mishandling, crying time, the number of changes and general care.

Researchers linked each participant to data from hospital records and abortion clinics, and followed the girls from initial enrollment at age 13-15 until the age of 20.

Results of the trial, published this week in The Lancet, found those who participated in the VIP program had higher rates of pregnancy and abortion.

Of 1267 girls in the intervention group, 8% had at least one birth, compared to 4% in the control group.

Similarly, 9% of girls in the intervention group had an abortion, compared to 6% in the control group.

While the researchers noted that girls in the control group had a higher socioeconomic status and educational attainment on average, further analysis revealed this had no effect on the findings.

Lead investigator Dr Sally Brinkman, from Telethon Kids Institute at the University of Western Australia, said the results reveal the importance of evaluating interventions for their effectiveness.

“Our study shows that the pregnancy prevention program delivered in Western Australia, which involves an infant simulator, does not reduce the risk of pregnancy in teenage girls,” says Dr Brinkman.

“In fact, the risk of pregnancy is actually increased compared to girls who didn’t take part in the intervention.

“This is the largest study of its kind and highlights that even the most well-intentioned programs can have unexpected consequences,” she says,

Dr Brinkman said that while the VIP program was implemented from 2003-06 after a pilot study suggested it was effective, it was stopped as soon as early indications suggested the intervention was failing.

See the full study here.

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