Issues to Consider

Ethical considerations

Using digital media raises specific ethical considerations for the researcher. Where it is difficult to research ethically using a particular method, you might have to adapt or use another approach. The following are examples.

Using the technology

Many digital media tools are commercial products which have conditions attached to their use. These can include copyright or access to information. Some social media such as Facebook have age restrictions with implications for research involving young people who are under 13 years. Researchers need to be aware of conditions of use.

Face to face contact with young people

Research might not involve face to face contact with young people some or all of the time. This might be the case when using tools such as online surveys or social media. Indirect contact has implications for informed consent, providing details and answering questions about the research and having appropriate information about a young person’s identity. Researchers should explore what needs to be put in place where there is limited direct contact with young people.

What is public and private

Concerns about digital media often focus on privacy settings and whether content is publicly available. This is particularly the case when using social media. Children might not be aware of what is public and what is private. Researchers, in discussion with participants if possible, need to decide what should be public and private in advance.

Confidentiality and anonymity

Researchers need to consider whether using a particular digital tool such as photography, videos, blogs or online fora will compromise young people’s confidentiality or anonymity. This is essential where young people could be unsafe or at risk from harm. Consider using animations, graphics, avatars, text-to-speech generators and careful editing to preserve anonymity. Researchers need to make clear to young people where there are limits to anonymity or confidentiality online.

Disseminating research online

Using digital media offers opportunities to disseminate research outputs more widely. This has ethical implications. In some instances, it may be ethical for children to be recognised in research outputs if they give their consent and are able to understand the potential consequences, the topic is not sensitive and unplanned media interest is not likely. Researchers also need to think through the ethical implications of research outputs potentially having a long life online.

Getting ethical agreement to undertake research

Research guidelines may not have kept up with digital media developments such as social media sites, blogging, smart phones and handheld devices. This might apply where research has to be agreed by a Research Ethics Committee. Researchers may need to spend extra time thinking through the ethical issues, and how to explain their approach on the ethics form. An informal discussion with the ethics committee may be useful.

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“Using digital media in research shouldn’t be ethically vastly different to everyday research.”
Susan Elsley, University of Edinburgh