Research with children: ethics, safety and avoiding harm

Publication date 2020

Conducting research with children can help us understand what they think about the issues that affect them. But any research involving children must balance the aims of the research with the safety and wellbeing of the participants.

By providing the right support and knowing when to take appropriate action, researchers can ensure that children feel respected and can participate safely.

We’ve put together some information about what researchers need to consider, including:

  • how to manage the risk of harm to participants
  • how to obtain informed consent
  • what to do if they are concerned that a child is experiencing or at risk of abuse.

Types of research methods involving children

There are three main ways of gathering information about children and the issues that affect their lives.

Asking children about their feelings, opinions and experiences
Either in face-to-face interviews with children or by questionnaire.

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
Reviewing information held in documents like social care case records, case reviews or school files.

Identifying and managing risk

You must assess whether you are justified in including children in your research, bearing in mind any potential risks. 

There must be a balance between the needs of the research and the need to protect children from harm.

Research for the sake of research is not ethically sound especially when it may expose children to harm.

Risk assessment

You should carry out an risk assessment to help you consider whether there is any risk of harm to participants, yourself or other researchers.

Once you have identified potential risks, identify how to avoid or minimise these.

We advise that research with children is approved by an ethics committee and research proposals clearly outline and assess potential risks.

> Download our Research Ethics Committee guidance (PDF)

Risks that may arise and how to mitigate them

In research about people's experiences there are four key factors that can influence whether a participant suffers harm:

  • individuals can find participating in research stressful, especially if they have experienced trauma or abuse in the past
  • hidden or suppressed feelings or memories may be uncovered
  • additional concerns about the wellbeing of a participant or someone in their family may arise
  • participants may worry about what they have shared.
Past experiences

When selecting participants, it's important to take personal histories into account. Consider how participants are likely to cope with being asked to talk about their past experiences.

Children who have been abused can be particularly vulnerable to retraumatisation and you must take extra measures to protect them.

Being sensitive to past experiences can help minimise distress. If you don’t need to know details about past experiences for your research, don’t ask about them. Make sure that children understand the remit of your research.

Unexpected topics

Qualitative research methods (such as in-depth interviews) often go into more detail than quantitative methods (such as surveys). This allows you to build up more of a rapport with participants and provides opportunities to discuss issues that neither of you were expecting.

Structure your interview schedule so that difficult topics are given enough time and aren't crammed in at the end. Be aware of the signs that someone might be uncomfortable discussing a particular topic and move on or take a break as needed.

Confidentiality and reporting concerns

Discuss confidentiality at the beginning of the process. Explain that you will not share anything discussed in research sessions with anyone else outside of the research team. However, you should make it clear that you will break confidentiality when necessary, for instance if a child or adult at risk is at risk of harm and action needs to be taken to protect them.

> Find out more about sharing information

Adult to child ratios

It’s best practice for more than one adult to be present when working with a child. If you cannot avoid being alone with a child, you should always put safeguards in place.

> Take a look at our guidance on lone working

Help and support

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice, direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

If you feel affected by what is discussed during research sessions you should seek support through colleagues or supervision with your manager.

You may find the NSPCC helpline a useful place to talk about anything that may be concerning you.

For further reading about research and ethics when working with young people, search the NSPCC library catalogue using the keyword “research methods” and “ethics” .

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.

Inclusive research

Researchers should make sure they seek the views and ideas of people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Not every study can include a complete cross-section of society. But there are simple actions that can open up a research project to wider social and cultural groups and improve the quality of the study. This might include:

  • adapting research tools to meet the needs and abilities of participants
  • translating supporting documents into other languages
  • providing an easy read version.

You should also consider how, where and when the research takes place to ensure that specific groups aren't excluded from taking part.

Also think about how you’re going to share the findings of your research. It's good practice to make sure the people who took part understand what you found out. This will help show the outcomes of their involvement and create a more positive and inclusive experience. You might want to create a version of your final report or presentation that’s specifically for children, for example.

Informed consent from participants

When you ask for permission for a child to be involved in your research, ensure that young people and their parents or carers fully understand what is being asked of them. This is known as informed consent.

When can a child give consent

When practitioners are deciding whether a child is mature enough to make decisions about things that directly affect them, they often talk about whether the child is ‘Gillick competent’. Gillick competency means a young person is mature enough to fully understand what they are agreeing to.

> Learn more about Gillick competency and applying the guidelines

Right to withdraw consent

Giving informed consent isn't 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 change their mind and withdraw consent at any time or their parent or carer can withdraw consent if they no longer wish for their child to take part. This should be made clear at the beginning of the process and researchers should regularly check with young people and their families to make sure they are still happy to take part.

Requesting and recording consent

Our research ethics committee guidance (PDF) sets out guidelines for how people conducting NSPCC research should seek consent from young people and their parents. It may be useful as an example of good practice for other researchers.

You should use a consent form to record that consent has been given before the research starts.

> Use our example consent form as a starting point

Personal information

You should keep all participants’ personal information confidential and comply with the Data Protection Act 2018.

> Find out more about children and data protection

Incentives

You may want to thank participants for their time by offering some form of appreciation such as vouchers. However, it's important that this isn't set at a level which would risk skewing the results because people are taking part solely for the reward. Make sure parents and carers know in advance about any incentives you are offering to children and young people.

The level of incentive will vary depending on the individual circumstances, and will be a matter of judgement for researchers. One-off incentives must not depend on full participation in the research – people should still receive it even if they withdraw early from the study.

Any incentives you offer should be ethical and age-appropriate. 

Complaints procedure

It's good practice to have a complaints procedure when conducting any research. If children are involved, this should include a way for them to be able to make a complaint and be adequately represented.

You should make the complaints procedure available when obtaining consent.

What to do if you think a child has experienced abuse

If you are concerned that a child might be at risk of harm, the welfare of the child should take priority over the research.

If you notice patterns of behaviour which worry you, you must share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police.

> Find out more about recognising and responding to abuse

If a child discloses abuse to you it's really important to:

  • listen carefully to what they're saying
  • let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
  • tell them it's not their fault
  • say you will take them seriously
  • explain what you'll do next
  • follow the instructions above to report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

Do not confront the alleged abuser but follow the instructions above to report what the child has told you as soon as possible.

> See our information about responding to disclosures of abuse for more tips

NSPCC's Research Ethics Committee and guidance

We believe it's vital to find out whether what we do makes a difference for families and children. We're committed to doing that in a way that is child centred and ethical. All our studies must be approved by our Research Ethics Committee.

Most of our ethics committee members are experienced researchers from universities and other research institutes and bodies. The committee reviews NSPCC research proposals and gives advice on reducing the risk of harm as much as possible.

The Committee has developed detailed guidance on ethics for those conducting research with the NSPCC. The principles of best practice in this guide may be helpful for anyone carrying out research with children and young people.

Download the guidance (PDF)