What's the issue?
In order to secure validity in research with children regarding their online lives, one has to make sure that they understand and give the same meaning to the terms used in questions.
Before beginning any research, pilot research (typically using qualitative methods such as a few interviews or focus groups) is vital to discover both the range of media technologies and activities in which children engage, and also what they call them. When asking questions of children, one has to be especially careful to explain the terms one uses, and also to check carefully what the children mean by the words they use. This issue is especially important with the youngest children. For example, in a question like: "Have you ever met in real life with strangers that you first met on the net?", one has to explain what one means by "stranger", in order to make sure that the children respond in valid ways.
Pitfalls to avoid
To expect that children will understand and interpret everyday language, like "stranger" or "new media", in the research questions.
To fail to provide an 'other' option in a survey, or a 'what are you thinking of' question in an interview, to follow up on children's own preferred terms.
SAFT (Safety Awareness Facts and Tools) Project. SAFT 2006 Parent and Children survey. 2004-2006: Norwegian Action Plan for Children, Youth and the Internet and the European Commission Safer Internet Action Plan: Norwegian Media Authority.
See Save the Children Norway (Redd Barna) reports.
A researcher's mistake
In the representative cross-national SAFT survey, we had over 100 research questions for the children to answer in a self-completion questionnaire form. Filters were included in the questionnaire, one of which was to single out those who used chat services in order to ask them more in-depth questions regarding uses and experiences. Children who did not answer "yes" to the question "Have you ever chatted on the internet" were asked to skip the following 12 questions. When analysing the results it became clear that the numbers for children claiming to use chat services were substantially lower than expected based on other user reports and traffic data from the industry. Why? Many children did not label their use of MSN messenger - the most popular tool for peer-to-peer communication in 2006 - as "chat", but simply as "messenger", which led them not answer the follow up questions regarding communication online. It is not just semantics.
(Elisabeth Staksrud, Norway)
Examples of good practice
In the SAFT Children's Survey, the questionnaire included a wide range of activities for which children might use the internet, phrasing these in everyday language, using non-overlapping terms, including an 'other' option (some researchers invited respondents to write in what this was), and permitting multiple response options as needed:
"What kind of things do you do on the internet?" MORE THAN ONE ANSWER
Response options: Chatting in chat rooms/Using Instant Messaging/Sending and receiving e-mail/Doing homework/Getting information other than for school work/Playing games on the internet/Surfing for fun/Shopping or making a purchase/Downloading music/Making personal web-site/blogging/Publishing pictures or information/Downloading software/Watching pornography/Visiting fan sites/Visiting sites for hobbies (knitting, cats, model airplanes, etc)/Visiting news sites (newspapers, online news services, etc)/Other things/Do not know.
The Pew Internet survey 'Parents, Kids and the Internet 2001' tries to avoid social desirability biases by saying, "Now I have a few questions about the kinds of things YOU do when you go online. Not everyone has done these things. Please just tell me whether you ever do each one, or not."
The Ofcom Media Literacy survey (Ofcom, 2006) has a different list of response options, and also seeks to discover children's main activities, asking: "Thinking about what you do when you use the internet, which of these do you use the internet for?" READ OUT - MULTICODE OK. "And which would you say are your main uses?" CODE UP TO THREE RESPONSES.
Response options: e-mails/Chat rooms/Instant Messaging (MSN Messenger, AOL Messenger, etc)/Reading or writing web-logs/blogging/Creating/updating websites/School work/Homework/Sports news/Finding out things for someone else/Celebrity/showbiz news/Playing games/eBay/QXL/Auction sites/Downloading music/Looking at national or international news/Listening to radio/TV programme websites/Other (WRITE IN).
In the USA, the 2005 national survey conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (Finkelhor, 2006) put these activities in the context of the last year, stating: "Most of these questions ask about things that happened in the past year. First, I have some questions about what you do when you use the internet. In the past year, have you used the internet to" (Read list) [1=Yes, 2=No, 97=Don't know/not sure, 98=Refused/Not ascertainable, 99=Not applicable]: Go to web sites/Use e-mail/Use Instant Messages/Go to chat rooms/Play games?/For school assignments/To download music, pictures or videos from file sharing programmes like Kazaa or Bear Share/To keep an online journal or blog/To use an online dating or romance site.
(Panayiota Tsatsou, UK)