Researching children: ethical issues
Research with children can have many rewards, including giving insight into children’s worlds and understandings. It can give an extra dimension to adult-centred debates and encourage new child-focused research agendas. Yet, despite these obvious advantages, both qualitative and clinical work with children can pose certain problems. These need careful thought and advance planning.
As a researcher, there are a number of ethical expectations placed on you if you intend to include children in your study. They include (but are not limited to):
- Thinking through possible impacts upon the child - at school, at home, at the doctor’s and so on.
- Ensuring the child’s participation is voluntary.
- Protecting the child from harm and risk.
- Allowing the child the right to voice an opinion - and having that opinion respected.
- Making sure the child, and an adult responsible for them, understands what is involved in taking part.
- Creating a safe and supportive environment for the research to take place.
These must be considered at all stages of your research: in the preparatory stages, throughout the execution of your study, and informing your choices regarding data handling and storage afterwards.
The expectations of you as a researcher translate in turn into content for the information sheets you must provide to parents and children. Information sheets should be age-appropriate in design. They should anticipate and answer clearly any questions the child may have, for example:
- What will happen to me if I take part?
- Do I have to take part?
- What if there is a problem, something goes wrong or I want to stop taking part?
- Will anyone else know I am doing this?
They ideally should also cover the following:
- Why has the child been invited to take part?
- How was the child chosen?
- How many other children will be studied in this project?
- How many children have previously been studied for this medicine/device?
- What will happen to the information they provide?
If at all possible, informed consent should be obtained from participating children themselves, as well as from a parent or guardian. The research, its purpose and the nature of their involvement in it must be conveyed clearly, honestly and comprehensively. Consent should be given freely and without coercion.
Some problems can occur when seeking consent from young children and children with learning or communication problems. However, researchers must still do their best to seek the child’s assent to participate ensuring that the child comprehends what will happen, alongside consent given by someone with legal responsibility for them. The National Research Ethics Service guidance provides more information on this.
Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks are required for researchers who will be working regularly with children or vulnerable people. They will also be needed for any kind of work in an establishment that is wholly or mainly for children (including healthcare and education sites).
Applications for a CRB check will be made by your employer. The standard CRB check searches your details against criminal records and other sources, including the Police National Computer. An enhanced check also searches information held by local police forces and lists of people barred from working with children and vulnerable adults.
The NSPCC provide a comprehensive reading list of guidelines and other publications on the ethical dimensions of research involving children. These include:
- The British Educational Research Association (BERA)’s ethical guidelines for educational research
- The British Sociological Association (BSA)’s statement of ethical practice
- The National Children's Bureau (NCB)’s guidelines for research
It’s also a good idea to look at:
- The Medical Research Council (MRC)’s ethics guide to medical research involving children
- The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s templates for informed consent forms
Related researcher articles
- Communicating with children in a research setting
- Managing data in children's research
- Qualitative research: getting started
- Qualitative research: common methods
- Qualitative research: managing, analysing and writing-up
You may also be interested in...
- Cree, V. Kay, H and Tisdall, K. (2002) Research with children: sharing the dilemmas. Child and Family Social Work, 7, pp 47–56.
- Davis, H. (2008) Reflexivity in Research Practice: Informed Consent with Children at School and at Home. Sociological Research Online, 13 (4), 5.
Sharon Boden works at Warwick Medical School and combines this with freelance research work. She completed her PhD in the Sociology Department at Warwick in 2001 and has published in health and social science journals for the last 10 years'.