Ensuring children’s voices are heard in research

Dr. Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, Dr. Elly Hanson and Pat Branigan discuss the challenges presented by professional gatekeeping – and how to overcome them

Boy playing at the tableIt’s really important to involve children in our research so that we can make sure the services we develop really reflect the needs of young people.

But professionals working with young people can be reluctant to identify those who may be eligible to take part in research. Or sometimes young people are identified as being eligible to take part in the research, but professionals don’t discuss the project with them.

We call this ‘professional gatekeeping’. This prevents young people from making an informed decision about whether to take part in research or not.

Drawing on our experience of undertaking research on the impact of online abuse at the Universities of Bath and Birmingham, in collaboration with the NSPCC and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Command we want to share some of the reasons professional gatekeeping happens as well as strategies for overcoming it.

Why professional gatekeeping happens

We’ve encountered many reasons why professionals can be reluctant to identify young people eligible for research and talk to them about it.

  • They have concerns about young people’s wellbeing.
  • They have misconceptions about researchers and their experience or understanding of working with young people.
  • They don’t have enough time to talk to young people about research.
  • There is confusion about the research aims or the ultimate audience.
  • They fear any research will lead to their own work being evaluated or scrutinised.

Exclusion from research

We’ve found that young people with serious difficulties are less likely to be referred to a research project, for example those who have experienced abuse. This could be because professionals see them as being especially vulnerable and want to protect them. But often these children do want to speak out and help others.

Other groups that can be absent from research include very young children, boys, children from black and minority ethnic groups, those with learning or physical disabilities and those who have experienced particularly severe forms of abuse.

Therefore we need to find ethical ways to allow all young people to speak about their experiences whilst being mindful of their wellbeing and any potential safeguarding issues - which is the ultimate concern.

Why we need to overcome professional gatekeeping

There are 3 very good reasons why we should strive to overcome professional gatekeeping.

  1. All young people deserve the chance to have their voices heard.

  2. Young people should be offered the right to choose for themselves whether or not they take part in research.

  3. In our experience young people make informed choices: they ask questions and seek reassurance before making their own decisions about engaging or not, or choosing which part of a study they wish to participate in.

Overcoming professional gatekeeping

In order to reach more young people and for research to be as representative and inclusive as possible, we need to overcome professional gatekeeping.

These strategies could help to meet the challenge.

Engage young people in participation groups and research advisory groups

These groups allow us to hear children and young people’s views about the benefits and disadvantages of support services and to listen to their opinions about the way forward.


Engage with professionals

By engaging with practitioners, researchers can help young people explain why it matters to them to be heard.

We can explain to professionals that young people who say yes to research generally report having a positive experience; they find it empowering.

We can also explore the reasons for their reluctance and find ways around it, feeding these findings into ethical boards.

It’s essential for ethics boards to be trained and experienced in balancing a child’s right to protection with their rights of participation - and for those rights to be communicated to professionals working with vulnerable young people.

It’s important that taking part in research does not have a negative impact on a child’s wellbeing and that we take steps to identify and respond to any safeguarding issues, but this balance can be found.


Finding routes directly to young people

In our study investigating the impact of technology-assisted sexual abuse on young people we collaborated with Childline.

In one part of the study young people over 17 were recruited via Childline adverts (including on Facebook) and invited to make their own choice about participating in the research.

Because we recruited these young people directly from the Childline community we had a wider – and more representative - base of participants to work with. Many of the young people who responded to our adverts were experiencing significant challenges, which may have meant that professionals would have been reluctant to identify them for research.

The participants made informed choices. For example, different young people chose different elements of research to engage with; some chose to only provide a few details about their experiences, some completed anonymous questionnaires, others were happy to meet and be interviewed.

This study is a good example of how direct routes to young people can help to overcome professional gatekeeping. But researchers still have a responsibility to safeguard the children they work with. We excluded children under 17 from our research for ethical reasons.

But over a third of young people who initially responded to our adverts were 16 and under – this demonstrates that they wish to be speak out and further emphasises that we need to consider how to ensure their voices are heard.

Empowering young people

We know that taking part in research can empower young people so the task for the future is to give more of them the opportunity to participate.

Even when the issue of professional gatekeeping is removed there are still challenges to consider.

During our research into the impact of technology-assisted sexual abuse we found that some young people didn’t participate because they didn’t want to make contact with the research team. However they might have answered the questionnaires anonymously if they’d had direct access to them and this is something for us to consider in the future.

One young person highlighted issues surrounding confidentiality: children may be worried that anything they tell a professional will be reported to other agencies. This can lead to young people not seeking support or engaging with research. We need to find ways to allow young people to disclose in their own time, without any fear of the process getting away from them.

Although there are several challenges to engaging with children and young people, ways can and must be found to ensure their voices are heard as much as possible.

Our research

For an example of research which we’ve carried out directly with young people, have a look at our report on the impact of online and offline sexual abuse.

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