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Conducting safe and ethical research with children

NSPCC factsheet

August 2013

A factsheet looking at the key concepts to consider when conducting research that involves children. Looks at different research methods and sets out the key principles used by the NSPCC Research Ethics Committee.

Different research methods
NSPCC Research Ethics Committee
Responding to disclosures of abuse
Voluntary participation based on valid informed consent
Avoidance of personal and social harm to participants and researchers
Complaints procedure
Related content
Further reading
Further help and information


Ethics is a core consideration to most research. This is especially true for research that involves children where there will have to be a balance between the researcher's aims and the protection of any participants.

The UK government has produced the Research governance framework for health and social care (Dolt, 2005) which offers guidance for all researchers and commissioning bodies and is designed to promote critical thinking and allow independent scrutiny of research. The framework also places participant safety at its core.

Involving children in research can enhance the scope and findings of a study. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is often used as a basis for the need to actively involve children in research, especially when that research may be used to inform and influence policy makers:

“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child" (United Nations, 1989 - Article 12).

There are some key concepts that should be considered by all researchers who hope to include children in their research, namely: obtaining informed consent; managing the risk of further harm to the child; and, managing what happens to the information given by participants.

Different research methods

There are three main kinds of research that can involve children or child protection issues.

  • Asking children about their feelings, opinions and experiences. This can be done either in face to face interviews with children or by questionnaire. Data can also be gathered by asking parents about their children's experiences.
  • Observing children's behaviour. Using monitored experiments or activities or observing children in an uncontrolled environment to see how they react during specific situations.
  • Analysing information contained in files about children (for example, social care case records, serious case reviews, schools records).

In all of these cases, the research needs to be based on clear ethical guidelines with robust measures in place to protect any children who are involved.

NSPCC Research Ethics Committee

The NSPCC has its own Research Ethics Committee, made up of external advisors, which ensures that all research that the organisation is involved with is carried out to the highest ethical standards.

The NSPCC has some key principles which it believes all its research should conform to and which are set out in the rest of this factsheet.

By using these guiding principles as a base, it should be possible to conduct safe and robust research with children.

Responding to disclosures of abuse

It is essential to have clear procedures to follow if a child says anything that indicates they (or another child) may be at risk of harm.

This will need to include a confidentiality policy which clearly sets out under what circumstances a researcher may and should break confidentiality. The procedures should also include places where a researcher or child can access further support.

Both ChildLine and the NSPCC can give advice and support to children and adults.

If a researcher suspects that a child might be at risk of harm then the research must be stopped until that child's safety is secured.

Voluntary participation based on valid informed consent

Consent process
Consent is possibly the largest and most complicated issue for researchers hoping to involve children in a study. When conducting research with adults it is normal to use a consent form, or to seek verbal consent in order to include someone. In such cases, if the adult has the capacity to give consent and the research has been adequately explained, then ethically it is easy to proceed.

It is best practice to ensure that all research participants fully understand the research so that they give their permission to be part of it (this is known as informed consent). If a child is under 16 then they cannot legally give consent themselves and a researcher should ask a parent or guardian for consent. Wherever possible, consent must also be sought from any children who are involved in the research to ensure that they are willing participants.

Consent is not a one-off process, but continues for as long as anyone is involved in the research. This means that a child who agrees to be part of a study can still withdraw his or her consent at any time. Skånfors (2009) shows the variety of ways in which children might withdraw their consent once the research has begun. “Say no", “show no", “non-response", “pulling away" and “ignoring" are ways in which a child has been observed to indicate their unwillingness to participate. This may not be a permanent withdrawal, but researchers should be aware of these indicatiors to ensure that they are sensitive to the child's wishes.

It may be appropriate to offer some form of appreciation during research such as vouchers, to thank participants for giving up their time. It is, however, important that they are not set at a level which would risk skewing the results of the research because people are taking part solely for the reward. This level will vary depending on the individual circumstances, and will be a matter of judgement for researchers. One-off incentives must not be dependent upon completing their participation in the research, so that they would still receive the incentive even if they were to withdraw early from the study.

Obtaining retrospective consent
For some studies (most often observational studies) it may not be possible to obtain consent from all participants beforehand without compromising the quality of the research. In these cases, researchers need to have clear reasons why prior consent is not possible, why the research still needs to go ahead and how consent will be sought after data collection.

Enabling participation where possible and avoiding the systematic exclusion of particular sections of society
While not every study can include a complete cross-section of society, there are simple actions that can open up a research project to a much wider group of participants and improve the quality of the study. These might include translating research tools and supporting documents into other languages or considering access issues and literacy problems.

It is good practice to have a version of the final report written specifically for the children who participated on the research. This will help show the outcomes of their participation and create a more positive and inclusive experience.

Avoidance of personal and social harm to participants and researchers

Assessing and managing risk to children in general
Qualitative research will often go into more depth than quantitative approach and there is more scope for discussing issues that have not been anticipated by either the researcher or participant. To minimise the risk, structure the interview schedule so that difficult topics are given enough time and are not crammed in at the end.

Gorin et al (2008) mentions the burden of personal knowledge in relation to working with whole families. Remaining impartial can become difficult when interviewing different family members. Researchers cannot discuss the content from interviews, for example, with other family members without ethically compromising the research. In these cases revealing information given in confidence can affect the participation in the research but could also place participants at risk.

Consider whether the research participants have the resilience to cope with being asked to talk about their past experiences. This is closely linked with managing any potential harm to the child but involves looking at particular participants to assess how the whole participation experience will affect them. It is important to take personal histories into account during participant selection. Having a clear ethics statement set out at the beginning of a project can help with selection.

Children who have been abused are a particularly vulnerable group and researchers must take extra measures to protect both the children and themselves.

There are five key things that can influence whether or not a participant suffers harm during a research project:

  • vulnerable individuals can find participating in research stressful
  • the research may ‘reawaken' old feelings or memories
  • the research may uncover hidden or suppressed feelings
  • the research may create additional concerns
  • the participant may be concerned about what they have shared.

It is possible to mitigate any potential harm early on by considering the histories of research participants. Interviewing about past abuse, for instance, in the room or house where that abuse occurred can cause a great deal of distress to participants.

There must be a balance between the needs of the researcher and the need to protect those children from any further harm. This could range from assessing the damage that may be done if a child has to re-live their experiences, to having to stop your research because of a disclosure of abuse (Gorin et al, 2008).

Researchers should also consider if the research or the inclusion of child participants is necessary. Research for the sake of research is not ethically sound especially when it may expose children to further harm.

Non-disclosure of identity and personal information
A participant's personal information and their identity should remain confidential unless a child is at risk of harm.

Complaints procedure

It is good practice to have a complaints procedure in place when conducting research.

Where children are involved in the research, it should include a mechanism for any child to be able to make a complaint and be adequately represented. The complaints procedure should be made available when obtaining consent.


Coyne, I. (2010) Accessing children as research participants: examining the role of gatekeepers. Child: Care, Health and Development, 36(4): 452-454.

Department of Health (2005) Research governance framework for health and social care: second edition (PDF). London: Department of Health.

Gorin, S. et al. (2008) Ethical challenges in conducting research with hard to reach families. Child Abuse Review, 17(4): 275-287.

Skånfors, L. (2009) Ethics in child research: children's agency and researchers' 'ethical radar' (PDF). Childhoods Today, 3(1): 1-22.

United Nations (1989) Convention on the rights of the child. Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

NSPCC research reports
Summaries and findings of NSPCC research projects.

Further reading

Search the NSPCC Library Online for more research on ethics and research methods.

Further help and information

National Children's Bureau
Aims to improve children and young people's experiences and life chances, reducing the impact of inequalities.

British Psychological Society
Representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK.

Social Research Association
Professional membership body; led by social researchers promoting high quality standards of social research.

British Sociological Association
Promotes sociology, supports sociologists, and is the public face of sociology in Britain.

Market Research Society
World's largest research association: market, social and opinion research, business intelligence, market analysis, customer insight and consultancy.

Medical Research Council
Encourages and supports research with the aim of maintaining and improving human health.

Contact the NSPCC's information service for more information about ethical research with children or any child protection topic

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