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Those robot babies used in sex ed may actually increase teen pregnancies

Many girls enjoyed the experience of taking care of the baby

Immigrant Respite Center Aids Families Seeking Asylum In U.S. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Robot babies used in sex ed to discourage pregnancy seem to have backfired. According to a new study, girls who participated in programs that used them were more likely to become pregnant or have an abortion than those who didn’t — possibly because they enjoyed taking care of the "babies" so much.

These robot babies, officially called "infant simulators," contain computers that program them to cry, sleep, scream, or "die." Most commonly, teachers give them to high school girls to take care of over a weekend as part of a sex ed program. The idea is that teens will realize how challenging it is to take care of a baby and then be less likely to get pregnant. But a study published Thursday in the journal Lancetwhich is the first randomized controlled trial to investigate whether these dolls actually work — found the opposite effect.

The study tracked girls ages 13 to 15 at 57 Australian schools. Over three years, 1,267 girls received the robot babies, while 1,567 did not. It’s crucial that the study is a randomized controlled trial instead of just looking at correlations. This means it’s far more likely the different results are because of the dolls and not because, for example, girls who were already at high risk for teen pregnancy were more likely to receive the dolls in the first place.

The numbers don’t look good: 8 percent of the girls who received the dolls had at least one baby by 20, compared to 4 percent of the control group. The numbers for abortion were 9 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

The findings are important because the scope of these robot baby programs extend beyond Australia. In the US, the babies are made by a manufacturer named Realityworks, which was founded by a former NASA engineer and his wife. Realityworks babies are used in 67 percent of US school districts and in 89 countries, from sex ed programs to training for nannies and new parents.

Researchers don’t know exactly why the robot dolls turned out to be useless. One reason could be that only girls receive the dolls, and it takes more than just a girl to make a baby. And, as study author Sally Brinkman said to the Sydney Morning Herald, "a lot of students really enjoyed the program." In the end, the dolls are are still nothing like real babies, and taking care of a doll for two days is not comparable to being responsible for it forever. It’s possible that the dolls accidentally taught certain girls the exact wrong message: it’s fun and easy to have a baby.

The Lancet study isn’t the only one to discover a somewhat counterintuitive finding. Earlier this year, a different study showed that giving out condoms in school increased the rate of teen births, probably because the condoms didn’t come with actual sex-ed information about pregnancy and contraception. Both results confirm how important it is to think carefully about sex ed initiatives.