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Visual creative research methods and young people’s perceptions of online risks

Author: Maria Murumaa-Mengel

Please cite as: Murumaa-Mengel, M. (2022): Visual creative research methods and young people’s perceptions of online risks. In S. Kotilainen (Ed.), Methods in practice: Studying children and youth online (chapter 8). Retrieved DD Month YYYY, from, doi:

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In 2012, I was planning to tackle the subject of arguably the “worst” of the online nightmare audiences for my PhD project, aiming to study young people’s perceptions and experiences with online predators (Murumaa-Mengel, 2015). Knowing that face-to-face interviews could become stressful and awkward if carried out in the traditional question-answer format with rigid researcher-participant roles, I was seeking a method that would give participants editorial control, the opportunity to sort their thoughts in peace, have time for expressing themselves, and collaborate in the interpretation of the data. This section is based on my experiences in exploring the potential of creative research methods (CRMs) in the context of sensitive topics. 

The approach is located within a broader framework, often referred to as visual research methods. In CRMs, participants are asked to produce artifacts such as drawings, videos, collages, Lego-constructions, or clay figures and hence, “to spend time applying their playful or creative attention to the act of making something symbolic or metaphorical, and then reflecting on it” (Gauntlett, 2007, p. 3). Linear creative research design (create first, talk later) gives time for reflective thought processes, parallel creative process (create and explain simultaneously) allows the researcher to explore the thought process and creation, too. 

It is crucial to emphasize, in academic writing and to the participants, that “creative” is not a cultural value judgment, but rather a descriptive term for a “thing” that did not exist before. CRMs study procedure considers the fact that creative reflective processes take more time and thus also demand greater reflection from participants. Creative artifacts created by young people “may not be amenable to straightforward adult readings” (Thomson, 2008, p. 10), thus research designs employing CRMs should provide time and effort to really listen to the young authors’ interpretations. Critics have pointed at the subjectivity and “naïve empiricism” (Buckingham, 2009) of CRMs, but I agree with contemporary scholarly discussions around “objectivity”, as a problematic construct itself. As science can only be performed through subjects, ”fully objective knowledge in this view is impossible for us humans” (Lindhult, 2019, p. 24). 

Methods in action is based on two short examples of how I have used CRMs. First, there was a study focusing on how young people perceive online predators and what influences the formation of these perceptions. I asked 17-20 year-olds to draw sketches of “online perverts” and, later, carried out in-depth interviews to elicit oral descriptions of and reflections on their drawings. Visual CRMs helped to “zoom in” on the phenomenon and its intricate details. Figure 1 depicts one drawing that served as the basis for talking about perceived grooming scenarios, offender’s background and victims of such crimes (see detailed discussion about the method, ethical considerations and study procedure in Murumaa-Mengel, 2015; 2017).


Figure 1: Participant’s drawing of an online pervert and his victim (Murumaa-Mengel, 2015).

Second example is a mixed method pilot study to explore young adults’ self-presentation practices and imagined audiences on Tinder. Here CRMs afforded to concretize the topic and “hook the thought” into something more comprehensible, for example, participants organizing their thoughts on various experiences and user types. On Figure 2, young female participant’s drawing of a typical Tinder user, generating further discussion on different self-presentation strategies and perceived threats on dating apps.


Figure 2: Participant’s drawing: “Fuckboy: classic 20-year-old football-guy”.

Analysis of CRMs’ data is usually focused on the interview transcripts, traditional within-case and cross-case qualitative text analysis methods, thematic analysis, grounded theory, etc. Visual socio-semiotic methods and discourse analysis techniques enrich the results. In my “perv-study”, I chose a collaborative path, and we analyzed the drawings together with the participants. For example, attention was given to the demand-offer relationship with the viewer (is the depicted presented as object of the gaze or “demanding” eye contact); do we see the person depicted from far away or are they presented via a close-up (social distance); or the symbolic power drawn into the vectors of viewing (looking down on or up to someone). By deconstructing and discussing the drawings, participants’ visual literacies and reflexivity could benefit from the research process and researchers will have data that has authors’ in-depth interpretations of created materials (read more from Murumaa-Mengel, 2017). 

Lessons learned

  • CRMs complement the concept of active audiences, as participants can embody the role of a producer (both, producer and user of content and meanings).

  • Researchers should counter and mitigate participants’ own overly critical perceptions of their artistic skills (emphasizing that it does not really matter how “well” something is drawn/built/photographed). 

  • BYOD-principle (bring your own device) and digital creations can be beneficial to CRMs, as smart devices move with people in various contexts that often remain hidden to the public(s) or researchers. Examples include studies on illness and pain (Cheung, Saini & Smith., 2016) and activism and disruption of social norms (Rowsell & Shillitoe, 2019).

  • Avoid the so-called Omniscient Scholar’s viewpoint, as these adult readings (“the man on the drawing has no hands, it means that he is not perceived as an active agent”) can be misguided (e.g. the participant just forgot to draw the hands).

Download the full handbook here: PDF.

  1. Buckingham, D. (2009). ‘Creative’ visual methods in media research: possibilities, problems and proposals. Media, Culture & Society, 31(4), 633–652.

  2. Cheung, M. M. Y., Saini, B. & Smith, L. (2016). Using drawings to explore patients’ perceptions of their illness: A scoping review. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare 9, 631–646.

  3. Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative Explorations: New Approaches to Identities and Audiences. Routledge.

  4. Lindhult, E. (2019). Scientific excellence in participatory and action research: Part II. Rethinking objectivity and reliability. Technology Innovation Management Review, 9(5), 22–33.

  5. Murumaa-Mengel, M. (2015). Drawing the threat: A study on perceptions of the online pervert among Estonian high-school students. Young, 23(1), 1−18.

  6. Murumaa-Mengel, M. (2017). Managing Imagined Audiences Online: Audience Awareness as a Part of Social Media Literacies. Doctoral Thesis, University of Tartu.

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