Many of the ethics questions that relate to adults apply equally to children.
Researchers should ensure that risk and harm in research is minimised and that adequate protection of children and young people is ensured. They should also consider the ethics implications of silencing and excluding children from research about their views, experiences and participation.
Researchers should not assume that children are necessarily vulnerable and incapable of providing consent because of their age.
Researchers should consider children’s competencies and vulnerabilities based on the purpose and context of the research as well as factors such as age, gender, socio-economic circumstances, and disability.
Specifically, the researchers may consider the following (from Morrow 2008, 2009; Save the Children, 2000, 2004):
- children’s potential vulnerability to exploitation in interaction with adults, and adults’ specific responsibilities towards children
- the differential power relationships between adult researcher and child participant, and how this may affect the child’s right to withdraw or decline participating in research
- the role of adult gatekeepers in mediating access to children, with associated ethics issues in relation to informed consent
- the expectations of the child participants and their parents/gatekeepers and whether the involvement in research is meaningful for the children
- the children’s understanding of the purpose of the research and what they are contributing to
- whether the information on the research and requested tasks is provided to the children in an accessible way
- providing information on potential disclosure and breach of confidentiality and the reasons that this may occur
- incentives and compensation for participation for children and young people, and how this may affect the principle of voluntary participation and freely-given informed consent
- whether data deposit has been explained appropriately and in a way that children can understand
- legal requirements of working with the specific population (including Disclosure and Barring Service clearance).
Consent from children
Where participants are children it is important to ensure that they have the time and opportunity to access support in their decision-making, for example by discussing their choice with a trusted adult.
Where consent is sought from children it is good practice to secure permission from a responsible adult in addition to child consent.
Where participants are not literate, verbal consent may be obtained, but this should, wherever possible, include a recorded written witness sign-off. In other circumstances, for example telephone interviews, this may not be possible.
Every effort should be made to deal with consent through dialogue with both children and their parents (or legal equivalent).
Researchers should consider whether mature children can confirm consent without adult approval; for example, there may be circumstances where seeking consent from parents could jeopardise the research (for instance, in research into teenage sexuality or alcohol use). In such circumstances, researchers will need to regard the potential risk to the participants of the research as a priority.
Research involving looked-after children raises complex consent and legal issues, and these should be thoroughly investigated in the context of the proposed research (see also What is freely-given informed consent?).
Disclosure and Barring Service
In most cases, researchers working with vulnerable people will need to secure Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) clearance.
The DBS offers organisations a means to check the criminal record of researchers to ensure that they do not have a history that would make them unsuitable for work with these groups.
In some cases other individuals (such as a head teacher or social services manager) may be better placed to provide information on necessary disclosures (see the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975).
The responsibility for ensuring that researchers are suitable to work with children and vulnerable adults rests with individual employers.
- Department of Justice Northern Ireland: Access Northern Ireland
- Association of Directors of Children’s Services research group guidelines
- Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service – research and data
- Check someone’s criminal record as an employer
- Disclosure Scotland
- Ethical Research Involving Children
- The ethics of social research with children and families in Young Lives: Practical experiences (Working Paper 53)
- National Centre for Social Research: Children’s perspectives on participating in survey research
- Children and clinical research: ethical issues (website)
- Save the Children: So you want to involve children in research? A framework supporting children’s meaningful and ethical participation in research relating to violence against children
Last updated: 10 October 2023