A popular teenage pregnancy prevention program that involves a baby simulator has been found to actually increase the likelihood of teens becoming pregnant, according to a new study.

Published in The Lancet, the study looks at the effectiveness of the Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) program, an Australian adaptation of a program in the U.S. called RealityWorks, also known as “Baby Think It Over.” The baby sim program is offered in schools in 89 countries around the world.

Intended as a pregnancy prevention intervention, the VIP program includes educational sessions on a variety of topics, including contraception, sexual health, the financial costs of having a baby, and more. Teens also watch a video documentary of teenage mothers talking about their experiences.

There’s also a workbook, as well as an infant simulator — a doll that cries when it needs to be fed, burped, rocked, or changed and measures and reports on mishandling, crying time, the number of changes, and general care. The girls are tasked with taking care of the “baby” over a weekend.

The new study included 57 schools in Western Australia. Schools were randomly allocated to receive either the VIP program (1,267 girls), which is delivered by school nurses over six consecutive days, or to receive the standard health education curriculum (1,567 girls).

All girls were aged 13-15 at the start of the study and they were followed until the age of 20.

The researchers then correlated the data from the schools with data from hospital records and abortion clinics.

What they found is that girls enrolled in the VIP program had higher rates of pregnancy and abortion. About eight percent of the girls who went through the VIP program had at least one birth, compared to four percent for the girls who received the standard health education curriculum.

Additionally, nine percent of the girls in the VIP group had an abortion, compared to six percent in the control group.

“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. In fact, the risk of pregnancy is actually increased compared to girls who didn’t take part in the intervention,” said lead author Dr Sally Brinkman of the Telethon Kids Institute at the University of Western Australia.

“Similar programs 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.”

While the study included a large number of teenagers, the researchers caution that overall participation was quite low (45 percent in the control schools and 58 percent in the intervention schools), so there is no information about the girls who chose not to enroll.

They did note, however, that participation in this type of intervention is voluntary in Australia, so the girls who did take part are likely to be an accurate reflection of those who would normally do so.

Source: The Lancet