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Blog Research ethics CO:RE at UiO Published: 18 Dec 2020

Engaging children and young people in research online: Ethical dilemmas, guidelines and experiences

What ethical issues arise when engaging children and young people in research online? And how have these issues been influenced by the current COVID-19 pandemic? On 3 December 2020 we organised a webinar to discuss these questions.

Our panellists presented concrete examples of their experiences working through ethical dilemmas both in the field of research and in committee work. Our speakers included Professor Elisabeth Staksrud (University of Oslo, Norway); Vidar Enebakk and Ingrid Torp (Norwegian Research Ethical Committees, Norway); Associate Professor Giovanna Mascheroni (Catholic University of Milan, Italy); and Senior Research Fellow Brady Robards (Monash University, Australia).

We are currently experiencing an increase in research conducted with and about children online as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a consequence of this, researchers are adjusting their projects and methods to digital environments. This situation can contribute to a perception of research ethics as an inconvenient obstacle that causes delays and unduly complicates research. However, it is particularly at times like these that we need to consider research ethical issues. Building on the example of the Nuremberg trials, Professor Staksrud emphasises why obtaining informed consent from research participants is always of utmost importance, even during a crisis. 

The presentations and discussions in our webinar focused on three central topics. These were:

  • the importance of obtaining ethical informed consent from research participants and recognising the differences between legal and ethical consent;

  • the importance of recognising the differences between children and young people’s perceptions of privacy and publicity in online contexts; and

  • the different kinds of power relations that emerge when conducting research with and about children online.

We will briefly present these issues below, but also encourage you to watch the recording of our webinar for more detailed presentation and discussion.

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Speakers: Elisabeth Staksrud (CO:RE), Vidar Enebakk (NESH, Norway), Giovanna Mascheroni (ySKILLS), Brady Robards (Monash University, Australia), Ingrid S. Torp (NESH, Norway) | Chair: Niamh Ní Bhroin (CO:RE). If you should have trouble loading this video, you can watch it here on our YouTube channel.

Legal consent relates to the kind of consent required by law (such as the GDPR) to allow researchers to collect, store and analyse data about informants. The panellists in our webinar discussed how legal consent overlaps with, but is different from, ethical consent. Ethical consent requires researchers to provide information to informants in a way that will enable them to freely and independently decide whether they would like to participate in a research project.  

Ethical informed consent should be obtained both directly from children and young people, and from their parents where relevant. Consent forms should include details about the research project, including its purpose, management, duration and funding. These should also indicate who will participate in the project, and why the specific child or young person being addressed has been asked to participate. Details should also be provided about how data will be gathered, stored and used, including in particular whether data will be anonymised.  

Importantly researchers should highlight that consent is free and voluntary and can be withdrawn at any time, without any negative consequences. This information should be provided in a way that is understandable (for children and young people), including in a language that is accessible. The information provided in ethical consent forms should allow potential research participants to make a competent decision about whether or not they wish to participate in a research project.

How might children and young people perceive online contexts as public or private?

Vidar Enebakk, Ingrid Torp and Brady Robards in particular discussed how children and young people might experience online environments as public and/or private, and how this may have consequences for the kind of interactions they engage in. For example, children and young people may find blogging a useful way to communicate about their experiences, including dealing with illness or managing difficult times in their lives. Researchers need to be mindful of this when engaging with people and their data in online environments. This also has implications for how data can be ethically accessed, stored and analysed. 

Importantly, and partly because of the blurred boundaries between public and private contexts online, researchers will encounter data that does not relate directly to their research participants, i.e., data that is co-constructed with others. Researchers should therefore consider how do deal with this data in a way that respects those who might be involved and potentially impacted by the consequences of research.  

Furthermore, while online social media such as Twitter, Instagram or TikTok might be considered predominantly public, or public by default, children and young people can have different understandings of the implications this may have for their interactions. Brady Robards outlines how it is important to consider the intentionality of children and young people when studying their online interactions. In particular, it is unlikely that children and young people engage in online contexts in order to generate data for research.  

Acknowledging power relations in research with children and young people online

Our panellists also discussed the different kinds of power relations that can arise when engaging in research with children online, in particular the relationship between the researcher and the child, but also how online research-based interactions might in particular be influenced by the presence of other people (for example parents and teachers) in the physical space where research is being conducted. It is not always easy to observe this when interacting with research participants using web cameras. 

Staksrud and Mascheroni also described some potential pitfalls that researchers can encounter when encouraging children and young people to participate in research, including potentially over-emphasising the benefits of the research, or emphasising benefits such as gift tokens, rather than research outcomes.  

Our panellists and audience also discussed the need to be aware of when and how children and young people might change their minds with regards to their desire to participate in a research projects. This is difficult when engaging in online environments, where the cues we might pick up on in physical interaction might be more difficult to observe. In longer term projects one potential solution might be to reconfirm consent at regular intervals. 

Finally, Staksrud noted that researchers are legally bound to prevent criminal offences and to report these to the police, without regard for the duty of confidentiality. This includes situations where researchers might suspect that children are experiencing abuse or neglect. 

During the webinar we also engaged in an open discussion, driven by questions received from attendees on these topics. These questions will be posted in the comment box below. Please feel free to pose your own questions, reflections and comments here as well. We will attempt to address these questions by pointing to available resources. We will also use these to develop the ‘CO:RE Compass for Research Ethics’ (available in early 2021), which is an online resource base for researchers, students and other stakeholders working with ethical issues. 

If, having read this blog post you find a topic that you would like to discuss further, please write a comment about this at the bottom of this page. In this way you will help us build a useful resource for the scientists and students in our research community. 

Please note that we also have a Zotero group library where we share resources relating to the CO:RE Conversation. You can access and upload resources to this Zotero group library here.

Additional resources

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Franzke, A.S., Bechmann, A., Zimmer, M. & Ess. C.M. (2019). Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0. Association of Internet Researchers.

image/svg+xml art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos Open Access logo, converted into svg, designed by PLoS. This version with transparent background. art designer at PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, JakobVoss, and AnonMoos NESH. (2019). Ethical Guidelines for Internet Research.

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Niamh Ní Bhroin

Niamh Ní Bhroin is a Researcher at the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo (NO) and a member of the CO:RE work package 7 on research ethics. Her research focuses on children’s and young people’s use of new media and on related research ethical issues.

University of Oslo (UiO)
University of Oslo (UiO)
CO:RE at UiO
Ethical Issues

The team at UiO works on research ethical considerations and develops the CO:RE compass for research ethics. This tool collates a broad digital portfolio of resources on research ethics towards researchers, informants, and others, enhancing the understanding of how to conduct research with and in collaboration with children and young people. It also cross-references to all other CO:RE tools and complements them with and ethical lense.

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