Research involving children – ethics for Humanities

I found this document via the UCL Research Ethics Committee in the UK, it is a guidance note on research involving children (Read here).  UCT’s guide to research ethics is very general, and drawing on my own experiences, I don’t think it provides postgraduate students with enough information regarding research involving children. I have not found something on our UCT site which compares to that found on the UCL website. I did find a free e-book General Principles including research on children, vulnerable groups, international collaboration and epidemiology relating to ethics in health research from another SA university, as well as a UCT health sciences document on research involving children, but this is not 100% suited for those of us working in the Humanities, such as the field of Media Studies and New Literacy Studies. I find quite helpful, but once again it is more suited to the health profession and naturally subjects that are more closely aligned such as Psychology.

As a researcher, I am familiar with research in school settings and the necessary procedures to obtain permissions and consent. However, I have been doing fieldwork in a holiday club setting. Although hosted at a school, it is not a school – it is a club and the organisers and the children have their own practices. Enter PhD student researcher with PlayStation 3 and laptop and loads of cool age-appropriate games. Consent from club organisers check, consent forms completed by parents check, but uh oh…who’s that new kid? Clearly not a stable setting such as a classroom. Parents may allow their kids to join the club for the entire holiday, a week or even one day. So how do you treat the ‘new kids’ (i.e. those that you don’t have permission for)? Tell them they cannot play games – that’s just cruel. But I only have a limited fieldwork period and need video data… dilemma? I wanted my research to be a fun experience for kids and the feedback received assured me that it was, but there were a few ethical issues that were not handled efficiently due in a large part to the setting. One parent inquired about her child needing to sign an assent form in addition to her signing a consent form for her child. The Humanities research ethics committee assured me there is no such thing, but it turns out (according to documents reviewed and linked to in the previous paragraph) that this is common practice within the Health Sciences. My question is 1) is our institution preparing us enough regarding ethical processes and 2) is the ethics guide for Humanities students outdated because it mostly envisions MA and PhD students doing research with children in a school setting? 3) What about new methodologies such as virtual ethnography, where online spaces are researched rather than or in addition to physical places?

For me it boils down to discussing the setting or ‘field’ of one’s research with a supervisor, and it should be an ongoing conversation which should not end once you have done all the paperwork has been submitted and you have received ethical clearance for your study. I received ethical clearance for my study, but this did not mean that I wasn’t  faced with new challenges while conducting research. Keep your ethics cap on and your eyes open throughout:)