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FAQ 23: What's the best way of asking children sensitive questions?

What's the issue?

With any research method, one has to work on gaining children's trust in order to ask about sensitive issues, like unpleasant chat experiences, dangerous situations, bullying, or sexual harassment. This is important both to ensure valid answers and to meet ethical requirements. Hence, judging whether (or how) certain questions can be asked of children at a certain age is crucial.

Common practice

  • The more sensitive the issue, the more important it is for the researcher to gain the trust of the children informants, in order for them to open up and talk about their experiences.
  • The research questions should not use emotive language, and the terms used should be as close as possible to the everyday terms children use.
  • The range of response options provided, if a closed-ended question, is vital, as the responses suggest to the child what kind of answers you are expecting, and the kinds of answers that other children might give.

Pitfalls to avoid

Be careful not to put problematic ideas into children's minds. One qualitative study asked primary school children whether they ever use the internet for hacking, downloading music or movies, disabling filters on the home computer, or using someone else's e-mail without their permission? Balancing these twin pitfalls is difficult - one must neither assume that children are only victims and never perpetrators of online risks, nor give them ideas for bad behaviour that they did not have before.

Questions to consider

Did the child give consent to these questions? Does the child realise they can refuse to answer any particular question? Can anyone overhear the child's answers? Does the child understand that their answers will be kept anonymous? Are you asking about something that is part of, or new to, the child's experience? (If unsure, open-ended piloting is necessary first.) Do you really need to ask this question?

Further resources

Irwin, L. G., & Johnson, J. (2005). Interviewing Young Children: Explicating Our Practices and Dilemmas. Qualitative Health Research, 15(7), 821 - 831.
Rogers, A. G., Casey, M., Ekert, J., & Holland, J. (2005). Interviewing Children using an Interpretive Poetics. In S. Greene & D. Hogan (Eds.), Researching children's experiences: methods and approaches. London: Sage.
Tang, C. M. (2006). Developmentally Sensitive Forensic Interviewing of Preschool Children: Some Guidelines Drawn From Basic Psychological Research. Criminal Justice Review, 31(2), 132-145.
Tourangeau, R., & Smith, T. W. (1996). Asking Sensitive Questions: The Impact of Data Collection Mode, Question Format, and Question Context. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 60(2), 275- 304.

Example of good practice in qualitative research

Eurobarometer (EC, 2007) conducted focus groups with 9-11 and 12-14 year olds across Europe, stimulating discussion on sensitive or risky issues thus: "Besides it being something useful and pleasant, are there also problems or risks in using the internet or mobile phones - I mean things that you don't like or find scary?" Spontaneous reactions were then probed to discover types of problems/risks mentioned, problems/risks related to internet usage/to mobile phone usage, how are the children aware of these problems/risks (Personal experience? Being warned about them? By whom? Another child? Adults - which adults? An institution/authority?), how serious do they feel these problems/risks are?
Sometimes it works to give children a statement to discuss, stating this neutrally so they can agree with or react against it. The UK Children Go Online project asked teenage focus groups, "Some say the internet is all porn and spam - how do you see it? Is that your own personal experience? Can you give examples? Or just what you heard from others?", and this was effective in stimulating a lively discussion.
To stimulate discussion, the qualitative Eurobarometer project attributed concerns to adults, and then asked groups of children to respond, saying, "Another problem that worries adults is the risk of being sent or coming across images or other contents that can be deeply shocking - that can include scenes of violence, brutal scenes, racism or pornography. How do you feel about it?"
If children claim these experiences are unfamiliar to them, it could be unethical to follow up. But, if they recognise these experiences, then one may follow up by asking (as in the Eurobarometer study), "Has it happened to you? What was it about? What did you do? Talk to someone about it? Who? What would you do if it happened to you, or what would you advise a friend to do if it happened to him/her? Talk to someone about it? Who? What practical advice would you give?" By using probes such as these, the researcher avoids the mistake of putting words into the children's mouths.
To ask children about meeting strangers online, bearing in mind that children may not consider online friends to be 'strangers' in the same sense that adults do (- this term is best avoided), the Eurobarometer focus group guide gave children an example to discuss:
"X/Y is a child of your age. He/she likes to play games or post his/her profile on the internet, and he/she starts talking online with someone to whom he/she gradually gives personal information like his/her MSN address, his/her mobile phone number, his/her name, or where he/she lives, or starts sending pictures of him/her. He/she thinks this person is a child of his/her age and someone really nice, but it may turn out to be someone quite different, who might encourage him/her to do things he/she should not do, or even an adult with bad intentions." (Moderator: For boys group, use a typical masculine first name of your country (X); for girls groups, use a typical feminine first name (Y)).
The UK Children Go Online focus groups recognised that children may enjoy meeting new people online, even though this can be risky, asking open questions like: "Do you meet new people through the internet? How many people are you in touch with online, and where did you meet? How do you mix on and offline communication? Is it important to you that the people you email/IM with are local or in the UK or perhaps overseas?"
(Panayiota Tsatsou, UK)

Examples of good survey questions about online risk

  • From UK Children Go Online, questions about risky disclosure of personal information were phrased as follows:
    "While on the internet what information have you ever given to another person that you have not met face-to-face?" SELECT ALL THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE GIVEN
    Response options: Personal e-mail address/Full name/Age and date of birth/Phone number/Your interests or hobbies/A photograph of you/Parent's name/School/I have never given out information about myself/I don't want to answer/Don't know
  • From Pew Internet 'Parents, Kids and the Internet 2001', questions about children's active role in risky activities:
    "Here are some other things some people do online. What about you?" "Have you ever..." (READ; ROTATE)? (a) Had someone give you fake information about themselves in an email or instant message, (b) Used email or instant message to talk to someone you had never met before, (c) Given your password to a friend or someone you know, (d) Pretended to be a different person when you were emailing or instant messaging someone, (e) Sent a prank email or an email "bomb".
  • From SAFT (Children Norway, 2005/6), question about bullying and distress:
    "In the past 6 months, have you ever been harassed, upset, bothered, threatened or embarrassed by anyone chatting online?" Yes/No/Don't know.
  • From Pew Internet's Parents & Teens 2006 Survey (12-17 years old):
    "Have you, personally, ever experienced any of the following things online? You can just tell me yes or no."
    (a) Someone spreading a rumor about you online, (b) Someone posting an embarrassing picture of you online without your permission, (c) Someone sending you a threatening or aggressive email, instant message or text message, (d) Someone taking a private email, IM or text message you sent them and forwarding it to someone else or posting it where others could see it.

  • From UK Children Go Online, questions about children's concerns:
    "Which of these things, if any, do you worry about when you use the internet?" SHOW LIST. PROBE: WHICH OTHERS?
    Response options: Being contacted by dangerous people/People finding things out about you that are personal or private/Seeing things that might bother or upset you/Spending too much time on the internet/Possibility of getting a computer virus/Don't know/None of these.
  • From the 2005 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children survey (Finkelhor, 2006), questions about sexual risks:
    "Now I have some questions about things that happen to some young people on the internet. In the past year, did you ever feel worried or threatened because someone was bothering or harassing you online?" Yes/No/Don't know/not sure/Refused/not ascertainable/Not applicable.
    "In the past year, did anyone ever use the internet to threaten or embarrass you by posting or sending messages about you for other people to see?" (response options as above).
    "In the past year when you were doing an online search or surfing the web, did you ever find yourself in a web site that showed pictures of naked people or of people having sex when you did not want to be in that kind of site?"
    "In the past year, how many times have you made rude or nasty comments to someone on the internet?" Would you say..." Never/1 time/2 times/3 to 5 times/6 or more times/Don't know/not sure/Refused/not ascertainable/Not applicable".
    This survey included several follow up questions. For example:
    "You mentioned more than one (other) thing happening to you. Thinking only of the things that happened in the past year, which of these situations bothered you the most?" And: "Why do you think this person was bothering or harassing you?" (write in below).
    It asked several questions about meeting strangers online, as follows:
    "I have some more questions about being on the internet with people you don't know in person. In the past year, have you met someone on the internet who you have chatted with or exchanged e-mail or Instant Messages with more than once?"
    "Sometimes when people get to know each other online, they want to meet in person. Did this person (any of these people) want to meet you in person?" (I mean people who were [R's age + 5] or older.)
    "Did you actually meet this person (any of these people) face to face?" (I mean people who were [R's age + 5] or older.)
    "In the past year, have you had a romantic online relationship with someone you met on the internet? I mean someone who felt like a boyfriend or girlfriend."
    (Panayiota Tsatsou, UK)