Surprise! Dolls Don’t Stop Teenage Pregnancy

A young woman is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of crying. This is the third time so far and she is exhausted. She pushes back the duvet and swings her cold feet to the floor, wondering what awaits her, another feed, another wet nappy? What has the programming decided to wake her for this time?

Fake baby dolls have been used all over the world for years to scare teenagers, usually girls, off the idea of getting pregnant. If you’ve experienced the utter soul sapping exhaustion of caring for a new born it seems like common sense, give a teen a taste of that and they will be put off the idea of taking it on for real. Right?

Except assumptions, even when they seem so obvious, can be wrong. This is why sometimes we need people who ask seemingly silly questions and scientists who will answer them.

Scientists like the group in Australia who looked to see if the baby dolls really did lower the teenage pregnancy rate and found that not only did the dolls not reduce the number of girls getting pregnant, they actually seemed to increase it.

Given how widely the dolls have been used it is perhaps surprising that no one has ever done a proper scientific check before to see if they actually work. But there is no published data. So the Australian team set up a controlled trial. They recruited 57 schools and randomly assigned them to be either test sites, where the doll program was run, or controls who just got standard health education classes. In all, almost 3000 teenage girls were involved and the researchers used medical records to follow them up until they reached twenty.

When they put all the numbers together it was clear that those who took the dolls home were more likely to have a baby or an abortion in the subsequent years.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be such a surprise. It strikes me that the doll program grossly oversimplifies both being a mother and being a teenage girl.

Firstly, girls often only get the dolls for a weekend, and while two or three nights of disturbed sleep is tough, it’s nothing compared to the accumulated exhaustion of being in demand 24/7 for months or even years. I also doubt the cry of a plastic toy could truly grab you by the heart and guts in quite the way that the scream of your own flesh and blood baby does.

Besides, real life new mums are taking on far more than just sleep deprivation and night feeds. There’s the physical after effects of pregnancy and birth, the constant worry over keeping the baby safe and over every one of a million choices in how to raise it. Then there is the probably permanent loss of your previous, child free life. Nothing in the world can truly prepare you for the realities of becoming a mother. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that a weekend with a demanding doll doesn’t do it either.

But the dolls failure says less about the girl’s inability to grasp the reality of motherhood than it does about everyone else’s poor understanding of the lives of teenage girls.

Most of them are smart enough to realise that there must be some positives to motherhood. After all, most women who go through the months of new born chaos are eventually quite keen to do it all again.

More sadly, some teenage girls see few other options in their future. The dolls may give them a breif glimpse of a purpose or even of some kind of status. “Mother” is the only roll that seems both significant and achievable. Even though girls now often outperform boys at school our society still focuses on what women and girls do with our bodies and present motherhood as an essential, an ultimate purpose and duty. Often little else is on offer.

Trying to scare girls off teen pregnancy with a weekend of simulated semi motherhood isn’t going to work unless we can ensure girls have desirable and attainable alternatives and that they believe their worth doesn’t rest solely in their reproductive organs. That of course is far harder. It also involves the boys. The study didn’t look at the effect of boys taking the dolls home or how this may have changed their behavior with girlfriends, their opinion of motherhood or the role of women.

As ever, the responsibility for pregnancy and preventing it is placed entirely on the potential mothers, even when they are still children themselves. Even when the baby is a doll.


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