Children’s images online: dilemmas of participatory research
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
Kay Tisdall, Marlies Kustatscher and Helen McAneney
This blog was originally published for the international Ethical Research Involving Children (ERIC) initiative at www.childethics.com. It was inspired by the COVISION webinar “Children’s images online: Exploring ethical issues in participatory research projects”, held on 15 September 2021 in partnership with Safe, Inclusive Participative Pedagogy (https://sipp.education.ed.ac.uk) and Froebelian Futures (https://www.froebel.ed.ac.uk).
When – if ever – is it ethical to share images of children online for research purposes? We have found this a chalnging question to answer. Our research is ever-increasingly online: we are carrying out research online, accelerated by the fall-out from COVID-19; we are working in research teams separated by geography and physical distance; and we know the power of online exchange and dissemination, whether that be by social media, websites or webinars. Sharing images online can be part of all these elements and the visual can be immensely powerful in communicating.
Further, we are committed to involving children meaningfully and ethically in research. Almost always, children are central research participants in our projects. Like others in the childhood studies’ field, we are also working with children in other ways: for example, in child advisory groups to guide the research, as co-researchers working with adults, and in child-led research. Children are thus not only research participants but also expert advisers and researchers. As these children are sharing expertise and generating knowledge, how can this be respected and shared in our increasingly online communications?
The default position in childhood research ethics, at least in our experience, is to protect the anonymity of children. Further, there are widespread concerns about children’s involvement online: from fears for child safety and child pornography, to fake news and manipulation, to the commodification of data and its visibility, replicability and longevity. While we know many children are indeed online, it is another question as to whether adult researchers should be further expanding this as part of research activities.
Such was the premise for the webinar ‘Children’s Images Online – Exploring ethical issues in participatory research projects’. The resulting conversation was respectful but provocative, with a range of challenging and different views posed by both presenters and discussants. [i]
At one extreme, no children’s images should be used at all. Images of children have a history of generating sympathy and charity, they do not and perhaps cannot represent children holistically, and they portray children as objects of curiosity. We don’t normally festoon our research websites, publications and outputs with pictures of adult participants and adult researchers – why are we so quick to grab the camera and want to show images of children participating in research?
At another extreme, children often want their images to be shown, they are proud of their contributions and their results, and they want to be visible and seen. Visualisations of children’s participation in their communities can be vital for understanding their lives and experiences in contexts – important for our geographically spread research teams, for example. Images shared within communities and families can celebrate children’s activities and achievement. Children’s active contributions have all too often not been visible in historical records and blocked from public engagement; it is important that this is rectified, in making their contributions visible and providing their own legacy. Children should have the right, if they so wish, for their images to be shown.
And somewhere in-between are other considerations. That any images of children must not further marginalise them nor put their safety at risk, such as children associated with the street or children affected by domestic abuse. That images created for one purpose are best not recycled for other purposes – even if such wide-spread permission has apparently been given by children and their parents. One webinar participant used the term ‘digital tattoo’ rather than ‘digital footprint’, to encapsulate the difficulties of removing an image online, even though they have ‘the right to be forgotten’. Once a picture is online, it may not be possible to erase it from everyone’s devices (e.g. if saved as a download or screenshot).
The webinar was the start of a conversation. We brought with us the views of children, young people and their parents from previous projects.[ii] Often, in our experience, it is the children and young people who want their images to be seen and it is the adults and the ethics committees who have the concerns. We are just starting to engage with child advisory groups and child-led research in our current projects and in due course will be in dialogue with them on just such issues. We hope that this will enable more learning opportunities for ourselves, as adult researchers, on how to deal with sharing children’s images online safely and ethically.
The webinar was organised by COVISION, in partnership with Safe, Inclusive Participative Pedagogy and Froebelian Futures.
COVISION is funded by the Health Research Board Ireland in cooperation with the Irish Research Council under the COVID-19 Pandemic Rapid Response Funding Call [COV19-2020-017].
Froebelian Futures is funded by the Froebelian Trust.
Safe, Inclusive, Participative Pedagogy gratefully acknowledges the support of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Economic and Social Research Council (UK).
Kay Tisdall is Professor of Childhood Policy at the University of Edinburgh. She is part of the Childhood and Youth Studies Research Group at Moray House School of Education and Sport. Her policy, academic and teaching work is centred around children’s human rights. She undertakes collaborative research with children, young people and adults on such as areas as children affected by domestic abuse, family law, inclusive pedagogy for young children, young people’s mental health, and children’s participation and activism.
Marlies Kustatscher is a Lecturer in Childhood Studies at the Moray House School of Education and Sport (University of Edinburgh) and member of the Childhood and Youth Studies Research Group. Her research interests include childhood and intersectionality, children’s rights and participation, and emotions and childhood. She draws on qualitative, participatory and arts-based research methodologies with children and young people. Marlies has a practical background in social work and support work with children and young people.
Helen McAneney, Research Scientist, UCD Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, Education and Innovation in Health Systems (UCD IRIS), School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems, University College Dublin, Ireland.
[i] Spotlight presentations were provided at the webinar by:
Simon Bateson, Co-director Froebelian Futures and Early Childhood Research Associate, University of Edinburgh
John Ravenscroft, Professor of Childhood Visual Impairment, Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership (IETL) University of Edinburgh
Irene Rizzini, Professor, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and President of the International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood at PUC-Rio
Rabab Tamish, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, Bethlehem University (Palestine)