Research Ethics in Studies Involving Children and Young People

Hanna Lagström, Tarja Pösö, Niina Rutanen & Kaisa Vehkalahti (eds.)

(In Finnish: Lasten ja nuorten tutkimuksen etiikka)

This book addresses ethical issues related specifically to research on and with children and young people. Ethical issues have been the subject of increasing interest and concern lately, both among researchers themselves, and the policy makers and municipal officials who act as ‘gatekeepers’, particularly in research settings where children’s and young people’s everyday life is studied in institutional or medical contexts. Discourses on children’s participation, rights and competence are considered together with critical perspectives which see children as structurally vulnerable and which emphasize adults’ responsibilities to protect children from risk of significant harm in research practices. Both views draw strongly on the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

The Finnish Youth Research Network and the Finnish Network for Childhood Studies have collaborated on the project resulting in the book in hand. This is a pioneering work in terms of a providing such a multidisciplinary collection of Finnish essays addressing ethical issues. This book attempts to broadly describe the existing legislation and ethical guidelines covering research in medicine, humanities and social sciences regarding children and young people. In addition, various practical questions and ethical dilemmas regarding research practices and field work are addressed both in terms of chapter subjects and fieldwork anecdotes. Much of the material included here was collected through a web-based survey conducted by the Finnish Youth Research Network and the Finnish Network for Childhood Studies in 2009. More detailed report on this survey will be published later on.   

This book considers ethics in a very broad sense. Research ethics are discussed extending all the way from the drafting of legislation and ethical guidelines, to practical questions in data collection––such as the encounters with the research subjects––to the production of written reports, and the dissemination and further application of the research results. Instead of setting absolute standards or providing clear-cut answers, the aim here is to present a variety of approaches and viewpoints, and to open up the discussion for further debate. The different chapters here bring together viewpoints from multidisciplinary youth research, from child studies in medicine and psychology, as well as from multidisciplinary field of childhood studies with an emphasis on social and cultural perspectives. Though most of these chapters discuss questions related to legal minors, under 18-year-olds, some extended the discussion to cover young people up to 21 or even 29 years old, according to Finnish legislation on youth work and youth policy. 

This book is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on existing ethical guidelines and Finnish legislation concerning research practices involving children and young people. Liisa Nieminen begins with a forensic discussion of how the Bill of Rights and international human rights conventions can be applied as starting points. She unveils the constraints on child and youth research set by the Finnish legislation. Outi Konttinen continues by considering particular legislation, ethical guidelines and questions proposed in medical research. To underline the complexity and the context-specific nature of ethical questions, Klaus Mäkelä brings forth dilemmas related to reviews conducted by the research ethics committees in social and behavioural sciences. This article adds an international dimension to the discussion by referring to current policies and their practical consequences outside Finland.

The second section moves from legislation and regulations to more practical questions and issues researchers face during the research process. Chapters in this section address a variety of methodological approaches, including qualitatively different materials, followed by divergent ethical dilemmas. Harriet Strandell discusses the encounter between the child and the adult in ethnographic research and the power relations involved. This chapter also introduces a wider discussion regarding concepts of children, childhood and children’s agency, thus providing an elaborated starting point for other chapters to utilize in situating their discussions within this complex field. Longitudinal research approaches pose very different challenges than short-term, face-to-face interactions with children and young people. Hanna Lagström addresses the complex questions related to the longitudinal approaches, starting from the source of informed consent to confidentiality and the validity of the intensive data collection, often over the course of many years. 

Encounters with children and young people may also occur indirectly, in studies that use for example existing registers, statistics, surveys, official documents or the material available on the internet. Marianne Johnson presents some possibilities for research provided by the national registers on health and social services. A very different perspective is provided by Kaisa Vehkalahti, who discusses ethical questions related to studies that focus on the past, from a historical perspective. Kirsi Pauliina Kallio extends the discussion from looking at existing documents as data to critical questions regarding the role of the ’gatekeepers’ in research practices concerning children and young people. This chapter presents some principles for ethically sensitive research and reflexivity within research practices.

The third and final section here addresses questions related to the use of acquired knowledge and the application of research results. Noora Ellonen and Tarja Pösö have studied children’s own experiences as research participants. They have discovered that children’s experiences are neither easily investigated nor clearly defined. Research subjects experienced both stress and empowerment from having had the opportunity to be heard. Arja Kuula discusses the use of archives, particularly digital archives, to expand the availability of research material collected by one researcher or group to others interested in their subject matter. Ethical questions regarding the use of such secondary data focus both on confidentiality matters and on the validity of such research, given the variety of interpretations the material may be subject to. In relation to practices for the protection of anonymity, youth research also includes examples of young people requesting to be quoted by their proper names.