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FAQ 15: What are the best ways to interview children?

What's the issue?

In general, good practice in interviewing children applies to everyone, including adults. But since children are generally interviewed by adults, and since they may not find it so easy to express themselves, researchers have developed a range of strategies for interviewing children. Particularly, a standard, lengthy series of questions and answers may not work as well for children as for adults.

Common practice

  • Researchers try to break up the interview into meaningful subsections, each with their own short introduction, mixing one-to-one interviews with other kinds of tasks such as asking children to draw a picture relevant to the topic, or using puppets or dolls in role play games for very young children, or using various pen-and-paper exercises.
     
  • Some children may feel uneasy or afraid of making a mistake. The researcher should encourage the child and make him/her feel comfortable in answering whatever the answer may be.
     
  • Use cards with images or words on them (e.g. pictures of media) and ask the child to sort them into meaningful groups (e.g. Which are cool? Or which could you not live without?) and ask them to explain their classification. Include some blank cards in case they want to add something.
     
  • Ask them to draw a picture related to an event or topic and then to tell a story to go with this. Interviewer and researcher may play turn-taking games, switching roles of teller and told.
     
  • In group interviews, children may talk about the topic in pairs, and then each pair can tell another what they discussed.
    The researcher may construct a mind map, using a large piece of paper, and invite the children to call out ideas or examples linked to the central topic.
     
  • Researchers recognise that children may find it hard to sit still, and so try to give them reasons to move about if the interview is lengthy.
     
  • If asking them about something nearby or in the room, it can be useful to ask them to show you (e.g. Can I see your favourite website? Show me how your phone does that? I'd like to see a story you wrote?).
     
  • Towards the end of the interview, it is good practice to feed back to the child(ren) the understanding you have gained and ask them if it's right or if they wish to correct or add anything.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Never give a child the impression there is a right answer, nor laugh at them if they make a mistake. Avoid leading questions at all times (not - Why do you like the internet; but - Do you like the internet? Why do you say that?).
     
  • Take care that your response options are not implicitly leading: if you ask, do you spend one, two or three hours a day online, neither the child who never goes online nor the child who spends five hours online will tell you this.
     
  • Think about the order of the questions you ask - begin with a warm up of easy questions rather than diving straight in to the revealing ones.
     
  • Try not to assume you know what a website, or story, or image means - ask them to show you, and then ask them to describe it (Why do you like that? What's good about it? etc).

Further resources

Graue, M. E., & Walsh, D. J. (1998). Studying Children in Context: Theories, Methods and Ethics. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Livingstone, S., and Lemish, D. (2001). Doing comparative research with children and young people. In S. Livingstone & M. Bovill (Eds.), Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study (pp. 31-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Paus-Haase, I., Süss, D., & Lampert, C. (2001). Kinder als prägende Akteure neuer Kommunikationskulturen. Reflexion adäquater methodischer Zugriffe (Children as Main Players of New Communication Cultures. Reflections of an Adequate Methodologically Approach). In U. L. Maier-Rabler, Michael (Ed.), Kommunikationskulturen zwischen Kontinuität und Wandel. Universelle Netzwerke für die Zivilgesellschaft (Communication Cultures Between Continuity and Change. Universal Networks of Civil Society). (pp. 317-332). Konstanz: UVK-Medien.

Good practice

In focus groups with 9-11 year olds, we got the children talking about the internet by telling them a story thus: "an Alien from another world has been watching people here on the planet Earth very carefully. It has been able to see everything but meeting you is the first opportunity it has had to ask questions about things it has seen. It wants to know what the internet is, and you have to explain...." The researcher placed a large sheet of paper (flip chart) on the table and gave each child a coloured felt pen. In the middle is a picture of a little green alien with speech bubbles around it: the children were asked to fill out the speech bubbles in answer to questions like, what is the internet, where do you use it, what is the best or worst thing about the internet, what is fun or boring about it? Later in the discussion, they were also asked if there were rules for using it. (Sonia Livingstone, UK)

A researcher's mistake

When interviewing people about their use of the internet, I have often found it helpful to give examples of particular search terms or sites that they might visit, to encourage interviewees to go beyond generalities and respond in more detail. Once when interviewing a group of young teenagers about their use of the internet for music, I gave examples of the kinds of music or bands they might search for (e.g. 'Suppose you wanted to find some music by Boyzone, how would you go about it?'). My interest lay in their internet literacy (did they search for leisure content with more competence than when they searched for schoolwork?). But my examples of bands were a couple of years out of date, and so in one simple question, I lost all the rapport I had carefully built up with the group, reminding them that I was an adult, quite unlike them, and so occasioning great hilarity and scorn among the group. (Sonia Livingstone, UK)


 

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