Online Research with Children

Categories: Data Collection, Focus Series, Other

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The world is changing and so are your research plans and options. We’re answering questions you post on MethodSpace, and related online events. Find the whole Q & A series here, and post your own questions. The questions discussed in this post were asked at the webinar, When the Field is Online. The recording from this webinar, hosted by Nvivo, is available for viewing.

Two questions were posed about online research with young participants:

  • Can you use online data collection if children are your key participants?
  • What do you think about using this approach in a quality research with children with six-year-old?

Kids and teens, as digital natives, are sometimes more comfortable and forthcoming when interacting through apps or devices, versus direct communication. But how can it be done respectfully and ethically? This collection of open access articles offers some interesting examples. For more resources, see the Ethical Research Involving Children project: In a separate post, I will answer specific questions about informed consent in online research.

Hokke, S., Hackworth, N. J., Quin, N., Bennetts, S. K., Win, H. Y., Nicholson, J. M., Zion, L., Lucke, J., Keyzer, P., & Crawford, S. B. (2018). Ethical issues in using the internet to engage participants in family and child research: A scoping review. PloS one13(9), e0204572.

Abstract. The internet is an increasingly popular tool in family and child research that is argued to pose new ethical challenges, yet few studies have systematically assessed the ethical issues of engaging parents and children in research online. This scoping review aims to identify and integrate evidence on the ethical issues reported when recruiting, retaining and tracing families and children in research online, and to identify ethical guidelines for internet research.

Liebenberg, L. (2017). Editor’s Introduction: Special Issue: Understanding Meaningful Engagement of Youth in Research and Dissemination of Findings. International Journal of Qualitative Methods.

This special edition of the International Journal of Qualitative Research contributes to the youth engagement movement, informing how we approach especially qualitative, participatory action research (PAR) and mixed methods research with youth, contributing to the theory and practice of adolescent development-focused research. 

Link to special issue:

Two articles about an innovative study with Muslim youth.

Orla McGarry (2016) Repositioning the research encounter: exploring power dynamics and positionality in youth research, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 19:3, 339-354, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2015.1011821

Abstract. Childhood and youth studies have seen the development of a range of innovative research methods over the past two decades. However, many studies have focused on the ideals of empowerment and ‘giving voice’ rather than developing understandings of the nuanced and complex experiences of children and youth. This paper argues that the development of an insightful sociology of childhood and youth necessitates an understanding of complex, fluid, and often political, processes of youth experience. It argues that the use of research methods characterized by a variety of power dynamics can generate situated knowledges of youth experience. Ongoing reflexive analysis of researcher and participant positionality in research encounters is posited as affording insightful and in-depth research perspectives. This is illustrated through discussion of qualitative research carried out with Muslim teens in the west of Ireland which involved the use of focus groups, visual narratives and an online blog site.


McGarry, O., & McGrath, B. (2012). “A Virtual Canvas”—Designing a Blog Site to Research Young Muslims’ Friendships & Identities. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 14(1). doi:

Abstract. This article is based on research among a group of Muslim youth living in the west of Ireland as part of a study on “social belonging” and identity. One part of the research involved designing a youth centered, participatory research method, in the form of a blog site, to investigate what young people say and do when they are asked to talk about themselves and their relationships, with minimal researcher involvement. Participants were presented with a “blank virtual canvas” where they determined what became discussed. Twenty-two teenaged Muslims—comprising close friends as well as fellow students of the same school and living in the same West of Ireland town—contributed to a time limited, closed blog site over a four month period. The blog site offers interesting snippets of Muslim identification, and how they choose to present themselves to others. In the process of contributing to this exercise, we can also observe subtle means through which inclusion and exclusion co-exist online, refracting young people’s offline worlds. The blog affords an opportunity to consciously “do” friendship by presenting to each other images, symbols and statements of friendship that invoke both cohesion and closure. The research unravels certain gendered patterns in online performances. In demonstrating this evidence, we argue that the study of online interactions of youth can provide an alternative window in exploring relationships, identification and social positioning.

Robards, B. (2013). Friending Participants: Managing the Researcher–Participant Relationship on Social Network Sites. YOUNG, 21(3), 217–235. Open access link:

Abstract. Research into youth engagement with social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook highlights a complex set of ethical dimensions, which do not always translate easily from similar concerns in traditional offline research. On social network sites, it is clear that many young people are managing their online presences in strategic ways, often involving conventions around determining access to these spaces. If these sites are framed by their young users as at least ‘partially private’, how should the researcher seek access to these spaces and how should the researcher operate in these spaces if access is permitted? This article reflects on qualitative research undertaken by the author from 2007 to 2010, which involved ‘friending’ participants on MySpace and Facebook. Based on this reflection, and contextualized by an engagement with literature concerning both Internet research and youth research, this article argues that social network sites blur the public/private dichotomy. Thus, research engaging with participants on these sites requires ongoing ethical reflection around assumptions about public and private information, and researchers, institutional ethics committees and review boards must develop and make use of suitably informed expertise to both conduct and review future scholarship in this area.

Willis, P. (2012). Talking sexuality online – technical, methodological and ethical considerations of online research with sexual minority youth. Qualitative Social Work, 11(2), 141–155.
Open access link:

Abstract. While Internet-based tools are gaining currency in social work teaching and practice, social work researchers are tapping into the development of computer-mediated methods for research with dispersed and hard-to-reach populations. This article is a reflective commentary about the opportunities and challenges of using computer-mediated methods in a qualitative inquiry about young people’s (18–26 years) experiences of negotiating lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer (LGBQ) identities in Australian workplaces. The research used two Internet-based methods of online interviews and web-based surveys to capture young people’s experiences of disclosing and discussing LGBQ identities in past and current work environments. In this commentary, I outline these methods and explore the technical, methodological and ethical challenges and tensions presented by using online tools in qualitative research. To conclude, I discuss wider applications of computer-mediated communication for social work.

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