Ethics, Children and Research

In response to past ethical issues in research, like Zimbardo with his prison experiment or Milgram and the obedience experiment, ethics codes and standards were developed to protect participants from potential long-term negative impacts. An complex area in ethical research is that of ‘children in research’ in regards to gaining informed consent, protecting the identity of participants and how the role of the researcher impacts upon the study.

Consent is a difficult area to pin down – according to Article 12 on the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child [1], a child should have the same right as an adult to choose if they participate in a study. However, this highlights two important issues:

  • Children are considered less able to recognise their right to participate
  • What happens if a child wishes to participate, but a parent or guardian does not want them to believe?

I believe it’s important to respect a child’s autonomy and allow them to make decisions for themselves. Through the avoidance of deception, and a clear outline of the consequences and advantages of participation then children should be allowed to make their own decisions. However, in young children, with developing decision-making skills, the role of parent/guardian should take priority in to to protect the children, should the research have the potential to cause long term negative impact of which the children may be unaware. It is therefore important that the children and parents/guardians are fully informed about the content of the study, its prospective consequences and its advantages. It is equally important to ensure that children are aware that they can withdraw consent and aren’t required to continue with the study.

This leads to the idea that children are susceptible to the power imbalance – It is unlikely that they believe that they can withdraw consent as they are so often told what to do and what to believe by the adults surrounding them. This requires an assessment of the position of the researcher and their long-term impact on their participants. Children often want to please adults by providing a ‘correct’ answer, and there is a danger that a researcher could impose their own perceptions upon the children [2].

A potential resolution for this issue could be to conduct the research in a space where the children feel comfortable and ‘in-control’, rather than within an adult space. This may help them feel less pressure to “give the correct answer” they believe the researcher is looking for, and encourage their own thoughts and actions [3].

Confidentiality is another big issue within research with children. The aim of research is to publicise results, so it is important to ensure that the children are protected from identification, as they are a vulnerable population. This can be mitigated through the anonymization of identifying features, such as names, locations and communities.

Overall, research with children is both risky and incredibly important. All efforts must be made to prevent harm to the participants, even if this risks the study itself.


[1] UN General Assembly, “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3

[2] Boyden, Jo and Ennew, Judith, “Children in Focus:  A manual for participatory research”, Save the Children Sweden, 1997.

[3] Morrow, Virginia and Richards, Martin, “The Ethics of Social Research with Children: An Overview”, Children & Society Journal, 10, 1. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 90-105. 1996

Author: Megan Venn-Wycherley

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