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FAQ 28: What shall I do if a child respondent seems to be at risk?

What's the issue?

When working with children researchers should anticipate the possibility that they will meet children who seem to be at risk. This can happen both in qualitative and quantitative studies. In qualitative studies researchers often visit children's homes where they might see signs of neglect or even violence. In quantitative studies researchers might find written comments in a questionnaire or a pattern of answers indicating that a child is at risk.

Common practice

It is not possible to provide definite answers to what should be done under any circumstances but most researchers would agree that it should be the best interests of the child that should be the guiding light in all decisions; whether it is to take action or not to take action. It is also worth noting that the law in some countries demands that the relevant authorities are notified if there is any suspicion that a child is at risk. An example of the enhanced protection of children in law is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Questions to consider

It is always advisable for researchers who work with children to consider how they are going to deal with the possible situation of discovering that a child is potentially at risk. This involves, amongst other things, being familiar with the relevant legal framework in the respective country and the relevant institutions which deal with child protection. In studies which focus directly on sensitive issues such as pornography or violence it is worth considering whether to give information to all the participants in a study about where they can go to seek further information or assistance.

Further resources

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. See http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/6/crc/treaties/crc.htm)

Researchers' experiences

During various research projects I have found that (in some cases) it can be necessary to have a look at children who seem to be at risk. In one case I thought that there might be sexual abuse in the family. I could not talk to the child or to their mother (I had interviews with a child aged eight and their mother), so I looked for an institution of trust to contact. I learned that it could be helpful to contact a priest in the community; thus I told him my suspicion and he started to take care of the child concerning that matter. It is the ethical responsibility of a researcher to actively react, when he or she entertains a suspicion on such sensitive issues. (Ingrid Paus-Hasebrink, Austria)

In the UK Children Go Online survey, I was concerned about the child who answered 'yes' to the following sequence of (approximate) questions: have you met someone offline that you first met online, did you go on your own, did the meeting go badly (or well)? In the event, this was a rare occurrence. In writing the consent forms for children, it was made explicit that their answers would be kept confidential and anonymous unless the interviewer had real grounds for concern, in which case she would inform the child that she could not keep this confidential. I also discussed this eventuality with the market research company who were contracted to conduct the interviews with children, so that they could brief their interviewers on appropriate ways to respond. Last, in case after the interview was over, children or their parents became concerned about something that had happened, we left all families with a leaflet with helpline and advice contacts. (Sonia Livingstone, UK)

The 2005 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children survey (Finkelhor, 2006) included a check for the interviewer to be completed after the interview. It relies on both the interviewer's observations and on the child's answers recorded on the computer. If the computer algorithm flags the respondent as possibly in danger, or the interviewer has concerns based on comments or observations during the interview, the interviewer then says:
"There is someone else connected with our study who may need to call you again. Is there a time that would be convenient?" [Get time and check telephone number]. "I would also like to give you the address of a web site with good information for young people about internet safety. The address is: www.safeteens.com or www.safekids.com".