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.
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.
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.
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.