Commentary Sexual Health

What I Learned by Parenting a Text Message ‘Baby’ for a Day

Martha Kempner

The "egg baby" has gone high-tech: Youth advocacy group Do Something has a teen pregnancy campaign that purports to teach young people what it's like to have a baby via text message. Unfortunately, the campaign fails, in both concept and execution.

Do Something, a youth development organization that wants young people to help “make the world suck less” through advocacy, has relaunched its Pregnancy Text campaign, which is running now through June. Here’s how it works: You go to the website and “impregnate” a friend’s phone by entering their name and cell number. Then, for 14 hours the next day, you and your friend will receive demanding but adorable texts from virtual babies.

The goal of the campaign is to get teens thinking about what their lives would be like if they had a baby. A press release from the organization calls the campaign “the 2014 take on carrying an egg around school.” Well, I never thought egg babies were a good way to teach teen pregnancy prevention—not only is an egg nothing like a baby, but programs that focus on how hard it is to be a teen parent do little to educate kids and do a lot to stigmatize teen parents. Having now carried around my pregnant (or is it parenting?) phone for a day last weekend, I can firmly say that the 2014 take on the “egg baby” is little improved.

The concept of the egg baby pre-dates my high school years, in the late 1980s—though in my school they did give students a five-pound sack of flour, which kids used to put baby clothes on and carry around wrapped in a blanket. The more modern equivalent of this is an infant simulator often sold under the brand name Baby Think It Over. These computerized dolls have to be “fed,” “changed,” “burped,” and “held” by pressing a button or turning a key. The chip inside the doll can record how long it cried before its needs were attended to so that the teacher can know how good a parent each student really was. I suppose the dolls are more realistic than eggs or flour, which could be easily ignored, and the chip forces kids to be honest. (How many eggs do you think have been broken and secretly replaced with an identical twin over the years?) But within just a few minutes of starting the project, the message kids get is that having a child who needs constant attention is annoying and time consuming. What do kids get out of that, and how exactly does it help prevent pregnancy?

The research into whether infant simulators “work” is mixed, in part because there is a lack of agreement on what it would mean for these projects to “work.” Is it enough for participants to realize that having a kid is hard, or do we need to see that kids who’ve taken home a “baby” are more likely to stay abstinent or use contraception? Or should we really be following them until they’re 20 to see if they’re less likely to have a baby as a teen?

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One set of girls studied in 2010 at an urban middle school in a lower-income Hispanic neighborhood actually reported that the experience made them want to become teen parents more than they had in the past. The researchers in this study speculated that since the young girls had experience with babies, “they also knew that real babies provide some positive payback for all the hard work: a human response to being cared for and loved, such as a genuine smile.”

For the most part, however, researchers find that young people who take home a computerized baby agree that taking care of it was difficult, that they are not ready to be a parent at their age, and that they want to wait to have a baby. But most young people in these studies went into the project knowing that teen parenting was hard and that they wanted to put parenthood off until they were adults. The experience of taking home the computerized baby may cement that belief, but it’s not clear that it translates into any pregnancy prevention action—whether it is delayed sexual behavior or increased contraception use. As one participant in a 2004 study put it, “That baby shows you what it’s like to have one, but it doesn’t show you how to prevent it.”

The central problem with the text message baby is that is shows you neither. Granted, my text baby arrived on a Saturday, when it had to compete with two flesh-and-blood siblings whose demands, though not as well-scripted, were much more immediate. Still, it barely registered as a nuisance in my day. The first text at 6:30 a.m. failed to wake me up. When I did wake up, I had two texts: one to tell me the baby was hungry (“WAHHH. Oh good, you’re up! I haven’t eaten for like 3 hours…in baby times that’s a week. Bring me breakfast!”), and a second apologizing for spitting up on my shirt on my way out the door (“I know you’re running late but—GRRRGLRBARFFF. Oops, sorry about your shirt. Rappers spit rhymes but I spit up.”) Two more texts followed throughout the morning, one about poop and a second pointing out that babies cry for no reason.

I got the afternoon off after I replied to a text message that said, “Why do your teachers keep looking at me like I don’t belong here? See if one of your friends can babysit. Text me their # and I’ll ask,” with what was supposed to be my husband’s cell number. (My apologies to whoever has the number I accidentally punched in and got an undoubtedly confusing text about babysitting.)

The baby was back around 3:15 p.m., peeing, pooping, and asking to be entertained and fed. At 7:30 p.m., it asked for a lullaby and fell asleep. (What I wouldn’t give for my real kids to be asleep at such as civilized hour!) Minutes later the wrap-up text came in, saying, “Being my parent was hard, but you’re done! I’m a baby, but if you want real info about the issue, txt WAIT (tips on waiting), SAFE (safe sex), RIGHTS, or PARENTS.”

I have to disagree with that text message; being the parent of a text baby wasn’t hard.

I understand the desire to use texting to communicate with young people. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with teenagers knows they rarely put down their phones. But not everything can be done in short, cute sound bites, and this campaign just didn’t work for me. If pretending to be a teen parent for a day is going to do anything, it has to be a somewhat realistic experience. According to the studies I mentioned earlier, the thing that got most noticed by teens who took home computerized dolls was sleep deprivation, because the dolls require middle-of-the-night attention. In one study, some teens reported changing their sleeping habits for the weekend they had the doll, and others reported being exhausted beyond belief. Other teens in that study reported having to change their schedules and missing events with their friends because of the doll.

The texts, while witty, barely register as an interruption and can be ignored entirely without consequence. They didn’t force me to change my habits, miss events, or even stop what I was doing.

The other goal of the campaign is to get kids talking about teen pregnancy. This is a good objective, but I’m not sure the texts are substantive enough to start a meaningful conversation. It is interesting to note that one of the studies on Baby Think It Over Dolls found no increase in parent-child communication about teen pregnancy when the doll was home. If having a doll that actively cries in the middle of the night can live in a teens’ house for the weekend without starting a conversation between the students and their parents, I doubt the text campaign can. As for friends, it may get teens talking, but I don’t see the conversation going further than “What did you sign me up for?”

That’s just not enough—nor are the short replies I got when I texted for more information about waiting and safer sex. One text told me to talk about my desire to be abstinent early in a relationship, while another told me that if I use condoms, lubricated ones are the way to go. Neither are bad pieces of advice, but little tidbits like this are nowhere near sufficient. To have an impact, conversations about teen pregnancy prevention need to provide much more information and spur real critical thinking.

As with any program that focuses on how hard it is to be a teen parent, I also worry about stigmatizing teen parents. The “look at how hard their life is” message can be empathetic if done correctly, but in the absence of deeper discussions it can simply come across as finger-pointing or relishing in the notion that “my life is better.” Empathy can come from going through the motions of teen parenting—in fact, some of the kids who’ve done Baby Think It Over reported a new-found respect for teen parents. The lighthearted texts won’t do that, and the texting campaign does not provide a space for deeper discussion. The campaign website, if users choose to explore it, does link to a site run by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, called Stay Teen, which includes a letter to teen parents that reads in part:

On another note, we know that our message might unintentionally offend teen parents—we hope that you don’t take our message the wrong way. While your experiences as a teen parent may be very positive, we know that the majority of teen moms and dads have an incredibly difficult road ahead for themselves and for their children. We are by no means trying to insult teen parents, but are instead hoping to help all teens realize the consequences of having children too early.

That is a noble but difficult path to walk, but I don’t think this campaign has done it.

There is a role for texting in teen pregnancy prevention. Organizations can answer simple questions via text, like where to get a condom or what to do if you miss a pill, and can help young people find services. There also may be roles for online interventions to prevent teen pregnancy. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America recently released digital tools designed to take kids through decision-making processes around both delaying sex and using contraception. Two of these tools (one for younger teens and one for older teens) ask teens to think about their future goals for education, career, family, and living situations, and then pose a few questions about how having a baby as a teen would get in the way of these plans. These tools are based on research that shows teens who have future plans are less likely to become teen parents. Moreover, looking at the impact of early parenthood on future plans seems better than focusing on how diaper changing may get in the way of your social life, especially because most teens already realize they don’t want to have a baby right now.

Do Something is a good organization that aims to empower youth to make the world a better place; other current campaigns are focused on preventing bullying, getting schools to donate uneaten cafeteria food, reminding moms to get mammograms, and hosting dance parties for senior citizens. I believe the same good intentions behind these campaigns drove the organization to create Pregnancy Text. Unfortunately, the campaign fails, in both concept and execution.

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