Authors: Niamh Ní Bhroin and Elisabeth Staksrud – CO:RE WP7-Research Ethics at UiO| follow-up to the CO:RE Ethics Webinar “Ethical issues in comparative and longitudinal research with children” on Wednesday, 09 June 2021.
What ethical dilemmas arise when engaging in comparative and longitudinal research with children and young people? How do these dilemmas influence different stages of the research process, including planning, implementation, data sharing, and analysis? What strategies can we use to navigate these dilemmas, and how effective are these?
In our latest webinar on research ethics, we collaborated with one of our partner projects ySKILLS to explore these and other questions. While the ySKILLS project is engaged in longitudinal and comparative research with children and young people about digital skills development, CO:RE aims to support researchers who focus on how children and young people use the Internet and digital media by providing helpful resources and guidance. This includes the development of a resource base (CO:RE Compass for Research Ethics) and creating opportunities to discuss ethical issues that arise in this research.
In this blog post, you can read about dilemmas of informed consent associated with longitudinal research, the importance of cognitive testing, and ethical issues that can arise when implementing comparative survey-based research in local contexts.
Dilemmas of consent in longitudinal research
Researchers agree that securing the informed consent of research participants is an ethical gold standard, in particular when working with children and young people. But how is informed consent secured in practice, and what consequences does this have for the implementation of longitudinal research?
Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Education, Minds Hub at the University of Helsinki, and researcher with the ySKILLS project Rasmus Mannertröm discussed how securing informed consent can present ethical dilemmas in longitudinal research.
In the first instance, it is difficult to ensure that children fully understand the terms on which they are being asked to participate in research. Often the circumstances under which consent is secured are also influenced by third parties, such as parents and teachers. This, in turn, can have negative consequences for rates of participation. Furthermore, in longitudinal projects, it is important to consider whether consent should be secured purely at the outset of a research project or in advance of each subsequent wave of the research. During our webinar, we conducted a poll to ask the audience which approach they considered most appropriate. As the webinar poll represented to the right demonstrates, the majority of our audience considered it appropriate to seek informed consent from research participants in advance of each phase of the research project.
When conducting longitudinal research with children and young people, when should you ask for consent?
At the same time, this, in Mannerström’s experience, is one of the biggest challenges for longitudinal researchers when mitigating against attrition. It can be problematic because long and complicated consent forms might dissuade engaged participants from continuing with the research process. At the same time, both the aims of research and participants life circumstances can change, particularly with regard to the life circumstances of children and young people. As such, it is important that research participants are encouraged to reflect on and consider their continued participation in longitudinal research projects.
Related to this, Mannerström also noted that securing informed consent in comparative research projects can present ethical dilemmas. This is because the standards according to which consent is secured may vary from country to country or context to context. In some cases, it might be considered sufficient for children and young people to assent (i.e. not actively consent) to research participation. In contrast, in other countries and jurisdictions, more formal and active consent is required both by law and as a matter of ethical research practice. While this may be appropriate in single cases, in comparative research analysing data gathered according to different terms of consent presents ethical and methodological challenges with regard to the comparability of the data.
The ethical importance of cognitive testing
A second important dilemma that needs to be considered in conducting comparative research is the way in which research questions, surveys and instruments are translated, and in turn, how children and young people understand these translations.
During our webinar, Associate Professor and Researcher at Department of Psychology and Department of Media Studies and Journalism Hana Macháčková and PhD Student and Editorial Assistant at Faculty of Social Sciences Marie Bedrošová, both at Masaryk University, Czech Republic, explained the importance of cognitive testing as an ethical measure to help to ensure that children and young people understand the questions that are being asked of them.
Based on their experiences with the ySKILLS and EU Kids Online projects, Macháčková and Bedrošová introduced a range of examples that illustrate how children and young people in different contexts can understand key concepts in different ways. For example, children in the Czech Republic did not understand the concepts of ‘social media’ or ‘cyberbullying’, which researchers considered central when exploring their use of the Internet and digital media. Macháčková and Bedrošová also emphasised the importance of recognising that researchers, as adults, might understand concepts very differently from children. Cognitive testing is one strategy that can be explored to ensure that the concepts and questions asked will produce results that reflect children’s experiences.
Ethical issues arising when implementing comparative research in local contexts
Our final presenter focused on how implementing comparative research in local contexts can present a range of ethical dilemmas. Elite-S Post Doctoral Research Fellow jointly appointed with Anti Bullying Centre (ABC) at the Dublin City University and ADAPT Science Foundation Ireland, Tijana Milosevic presented a range of issues arising from her experience of implementing the EU Kids Online survey in Serbia in 2018.
The first issue related to translating the survey appropriately to reflect how gender is represented in the Serbian language. Addressing a person according to their gender in Serbian has further consequences for word form and sentence structure. Translating a linguistically accurate questionnaire, therefore, significantly added to the length of an already substantial booklet. Rather than presenting children with a substantial volume, including both male and female versions, Milosevic and her team decided to divide the questionnaire in two. This meant, of course, that the respondents needed to identify with either the male or female gender. Those distributing the questionnaire also needed to do so according to their own interpretation of the participating children’s gender. This meant that children did not have the freedom to decide which gender they identified with.
Furthermore, it is not considered culturally appropriate to present oneself as not identifying or refer to other people who do not identify with a male or female gender in Serbia. It is also not appropriate to ask questions about families that might have same-sex parents. As such, the potential to gather data about children who experience these circumstances was curtailed in the Serbian context, in turn reducing the potential for international comparison on these topics.
A final dilemma that Milosevic experienced related to the international funding of the research. Participants, including teachers and parents at a school in Serbia, were suspicious towards the researchers because they were gathering knowledge about their children that was funded by foreign governments and NGOs. Because of this, they refused to participate in the survey. Enhancing trust in science is therefore also an issue in comparative international research.
Longitudinal and comparative research projects present a range of ethical dilemmas for researchers working with children and young people. In our webinar, we focused on the dilemmas of consent that arise in longitudinal research. As research projects and participant life circumstances change, it can be important to secure informed consent in advance of each wave of a longitudinal process. At the same time, presenting participants with lengthy and complicated consent forms may increase rates of attrition, thus undermining the goals of the research project. With regard to comparative research, our presenters highlighted the importance of ensuring that children and young people understand the questions and concepts that they are being asked about.
Furthermore, translating surveys into different languages can have unexpected consequences, including increasing the overall length of the survey but also relating to the potential to ask questions about gender and sexuality. Finally, engaging in internationally funded comparative research might influence the extent to which potential participants trust researchers. Questions of research integrity, therefore, also need to be considered in order to enhance trust and interaction between researchers and their participants.
Our webinar revealed how difficult it is to make ethical decisions when working with comparative and longitudinal research, particularly with regards to when and how to seek informed consent to research participation from children and young people. The majority of respondents to our poll agreed that participants should be asked for consent in advance of each wave of research, but Mannerström provided examples of how difficult it was to implement this in practice.
Some of the dilemmas we discussed are well known from debates about methodology and are often tentatively resolved by stressing the importance of research reflexivity and contextual sensitivity. However, in practice, researchers lack both opportunities and venues to reflect on and discuss the ethical aspects of these dilemmas and to identify how they can potentially be resolved. It is therefore important to acknowledge the interconnection between methods and ethics and the extent to which a decision about one has consequences for the other.
Our participants also pointed to the importance of ensuring that children understand what is being asked of them. Cognitive testing is one proposed solution that can be used for this purpose.
It should also be acknowledged that translating international surveys to local languages can have consequences for how children and young people that identify with different genders can participate in research. Local contexts can also influence the extent to which children and young people can be asked about their experiences of growing up in what might locally be considered non-normative families. The ways in which this might influence the comparability of research findings should therefore be considered in research planning and design.
Furthermore, it should also be acknowledged that participating in internationally funded comparative research projects can influence the extent to which local participants trust researchers and that measures should be put in place to support the integrity of research projects in local contexts.
As part of the CO:RE project, we are developing a resource base for researchers and students working with questions and dilemmas relating to engaging in longitudinal and comparative research with children and young people. We will include resources on the topics addressed in this webinar. Find the resource base here: CO:RE Compass for Research Ethics. Take a look and share your feedback with us!
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