It’s 3:30 a.m. We wake to sounds of a crying baby, coming from our son’s bedroom. But our son is 15. Is it the ghost of Infancy Past? No, it’s part of a school sex education experiment. Our son’s robotic baby has erupted in the middle of the night to demonstrate the “joys” of teen parenthood.
But the “baby” cries on, insistently, with no response from our son, though they are sharing the same bed. We have to get up and rouse him from his deep sleep. It turns out the baby had already awakened him by crying at 1 a.m. And now he is too exhausted to respond again without an extra prompt. Unfortunately, in just a few hours our son will have to get ready for school, despite his restless night. Is this a lesson he is meant to learn?
Our son’s school has signed on to a program called Baby Think It Over, meant to demonstrate to tenth graders how the responsibilities of child care may impinge on their carefree teenage pleasures. Student “parents” are fitted out with electronic bracelets to ensure that only they can offer the care their robotic babies need, whether it is a bottle or a hug or a diaper change.
One unfortunate result of this exercise is the negative reaction some caregivers have to their robotic charges. Some students see these baby dolls only as a hassle. They feel no warmth or emotional attachment to this computerized plastic construction. It is not, after all, flesh of their flesh or the product of their love. Just a school assignment, somewhat stranger than most.
According to a 2016 study reported in Australian media: “The virtual infants made by company Realityworks are used in around 2,000 schools in Australia, 67 per cent of schools in the US and in 40,000 institutions in 89 other countries in a bid to deter teenage girls from getting pregnant.
“The doll reports on mishandling, crying time, the number of nappy changes and general care…”
Dr. Sally Brinkman of the Telethon Kids Institute, who studied the effects of the program, as reported in the medical journal, Lancet, reported that: “Some of the teenagers locked the baby on a garden shed, others used blue-tac to stifle the microphone and some parents called in to ask how it could be turned off. However, most of the girls became very attached to the robot and some did not want to hand it back.”
The biggest problem with Baby Think It Over (now renamed RealCare Baby) is that “the infant simulators do 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,” said Dr Brinkman.
Why using the electronic dolls should promote rather than prevent teen pregnancy is a matter of speculation. Some students said they thought caring for a “real baby” would be easier than caring for a doll. Some researchers hypothesize that students enjoyed their simulated parenthood more than anyone might have anticipated.
Whatever the reasons, studies as early as 2001 by the National Institutes of Mental Health showed that using electronic dolls to deter teen pregnancy was ineffective, and in fact, counter-productive. Our son, who began by treating his plastic charge dismissively, finally warmed to the task and was over time more solicitous of the doll’s welfare, even as he multitasked, feeding and rocking the baby while he finished his homework.
The real question is, with various reputable studies showing that Baby Think It Over may not only be futile, but may in fact actually promote teen pregnancy, why do schools continue to go to the considerable trouble and expense of participating in that well-meaning but misguided program?