Harms and Benefits

The most fundamental consideration in undertaking research involving children is deciding whether the research actually needs to be done, if children need to be involved in it, and in what capacity. Accordingly, at the very outset of the research process researchers need to engage with critical issues regarding the purpose of the research and the impact that participating in the research may have on children in terms of potential harms and possible benefits.

Assessing potential harms and benefits is not straightforward as these are influenced by a range of factors across the multiple contexts in which research occurs. There can also be divergent opinions about what constitutes harm and benefit, and related issues such as acceptable levels of risk. Ethical research requires reflecting on these and making decisions accordingly, with the aim of minimising risks and maximising potential benefits for the children participating and others.

In considering the potential harms and benefits, researchers, institutions, funding bodies and other stakeholders, may find it helpful to reflect on the following:

  • If certain groups of children are being included, or excluded, and why;
  • If the researchers have the competence, expertise, resources and capacity needed to undertake the research involving children;
  • How the research will be of benefit to the individual child participants and / or children as a wider social group.

You can download a pdf of the full ERIC guidance on harms and benefits. It is available in English, français, español, 한국어, Türkçe and Bahasa Indonesia. A summary is provided in English below.

Harm in research may take several forms, arising from different sources and shaped by the research topic, methods and local setting. Forms of potential risks and harm to children can include:

  • physical harm as a direct consequence of the research study itself;
  • physical retribution, punishment or harm from others (families or the wider community) for participating in research activities or through the revealing of stigmatising information as a consequence of research participation;
  • physical retribution, punishment or harm from others (families or the wider community) from being excluded from research and any associated or perceived benefits;
  • inappropriate responses to / reporting of safety issues, exploitation or violation of children’s rights (or inability to follow these up appropriately);
  • abusive or incompetent researchers or their support staff;
  • distress, re-traumatisation, anxiety or loss of self-esteem;
  • disappointment for participants if certain (possibly hidden) expectations or benefits do not materialise;
  • over-research / unfair burdening of disadvantaged communities or villages if they are involved in multiple studies or experiments.

Researchers also have a responsibility to ensure that children are not in jeopardy if caregivers or members of the community are consulted for research or informed consent purposes. If the research topic is sensitive, for example investigations into violence against children or in conflict / post-conflict settings, the people being consulted may be perpetrators of violence or abusing positions of power. Similarly, the risks associated with potentially stigmatising information are amplified when local community members are involved with the research, for example as interviewers, interpreters or drivers. Harm can occur when children’s voices are sought only when they match the interests of adult researchers, but are overlooked when they do not. The differences between children’s perspectives and those of adults need to be negotiated in a transparent and fair manner, and the responsibilities for managing conflict appropriately factored into team members’ roles. In co-research, or child- / youth-led research, conflicting agendas between children and adults also need to be expected and planned for.

  • No child should be discriminated against on the basis of their sex, race, religion, abilities, or any other social or political characteristics, in terms of their participation in research (Article 2).
  • Researchers, research organisations and governments have a responsibility to do what is best for children and make sure that all children are protected (Article 3).
  • Children have the right to protection from research that is exploitative, harms them or is bad for their health, education or development (Articles 6, 19, 32 and 36).
  • Researchers have a responsibility to ensure children have access to advice and support if they are adversely impacted by issues raised in the course of the research process (Article 39).
  • Research should honour children’s right to express their opinions, by talking, drawing, writing or in any other ways. Researchers have a responsibility to listen and take children’s views seriously (Articles 12 and 13).
  • Being involved in research has a formative value and therefore should help children use and develop their talents and abilities (Articles 5, 6, 12 and 13).
  • All children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, in body or mind, throughout the research process (Article 19).
  • Children are not allowed to be punished in research (Article 37).

Best practice requires that you:

  • Be able to justify why the research is being done and why children, or a specific group of children, are being included or excluded from the research.
  • Work to ensure that children are not harmed as a consequence of their participation in research, from the outset of the project through to its completion.
  • Consider, as widely as possible, any potential harms and/or benefits for child participants, their families or wider community groups.
  • Employ strategies to minimise distress for children participating in the research.
  • Have child protection protocols in place to safeguard children from abusive or incompetent researchers.
  • Have an agreed upon plan for responding to child safety concerns.
  • Consult locally when planning the research and developing protocols, without jeopardising children’s safety or well-being.
  • Ensure that support for children, if needed during and after the research process, has been planned for.
  • Take measures to ensure that harm is not caused to children, families or communities in the dissemination of the research findings.

Does this research need to be done?

  • Will the research contribute new knowledge?
  • Have you ensured that the information being sought is not available elsewhere?
  • Is children’s participation in the research necessary or can the information be obtained in other ways (excluding endorsing adults speaking on behalf of children in preference to children speaking for themselves)?
  • What form will children’s involvement in the research take?

Do you have the resources necessary to do the research? 

  • What resources (money, time, staff, equipment etc.) are necessary to obtain the best possible local knowledge and to undertake the research, and are these readily available? If not, is there a plan for how these will be obtained/managed?
  • How much time needs to be allocated for obtaining necessary resources in order to undertake the research project ethically?

How well prepared are you, the researcher, to meet with children?

  • What do you know about the children who you want to involve?
  • How will you find out what you need to know about the children and their lives?
  • Do you have the necessary skills (technical and interpersonal) to involve the children in research? What experience do you have of dialogue with children? What do you know of child development?
  • What means (or methods) will you use to address the power differences that exist between you and children?
  • How will this research be inclusive of all children?
  • What steps can be taken to identify marginalised / hard to reach children and ensure they are included in the research?
  • If it is not your intention to include children, on what basis will they be excluded, and why?

How will you ensure children are safe?

  • Are there any identifiable risks for children?
  • Are there any risks posed if the findings from the research are made public?
  • What plans can be put in place to reduce the risks?
  • Are there any children whose particular circumstances place them at high risk? If yes, who are they and why?
  • How will you find out what community and /or professional resources and services are available to children if needed?
  • What actions will you need to take to respond appropriately if a child discloses harm or abuse?
  • Who will you need to inform about these actions?
  • What are the legal requirements for reporting child abuse in the area the research is taking place?
  • What possible stigma may attach to children if they participate in the research? What will you do about this?
  • Do you need to develop and / or implement safety protocols or policies in your project to protect children during and /or following the research? If so, why, and what protocols and policies are these?
  • Have you considered instigating a post-interview check-in by someone who is a known, trusted support, familiar with the child’s usual behaviour, and can read the signs and find additional help if needed?

How will you respond to children if they become distressed or upset?

  • Do you have the experience and/or skills to respond to children’s distress?
  • What supervision or support do you need to have in place for research team members?
  • What arrangements do you need to make to support children who become distressed? And, how will you ensure that their issue or concern was attended to?

Harms and Benefits: Frequently Asked Questions

Defining, assessing and minimising potential harm to children from research involvement is a critical and, at times, difficult task. Harm may be invisible and elusive, subjectively defined, and complicated by differing viewpoints and short- and longer-term outcomes (Alderson & Morrow, 2011 (new edition of the book, 2020)), with tensions arising between the underlying ethical considerations. In some studies direct harm may not be anticipated. In others, such as when the project concerns the testing of a new drug or interviewing children about traumatic experiences, risk and/or discomfort for participants is more obvious. Potential benefits can also be hard to define sometimes and difficult to accurately assess as being a result of research participation (Alderson & Morrow, 2011 (new edition of the book, 2020)).

A best-outcomes, consequentialist approach can be applied to assessing and reducing harm and promoting benefits. In this approach, actions are considered right or wrong depending on the nature of their consequences (Gallagher, 2009 (chapter in Tisdall, Davis & Gallagher, 2011). Accordingly, decisions in research may be guided by what are the best expected outcomes, with the anticipated benefits needing to be bigger, and more likely to occur, than any possible negative consequences. This can be interpreted as the right actions being those that result in the greatest overall good for the greatest number of people. An additional factor in the equation is the harm that may occur if the research is not done.

However, conflict can arise with this approach between the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ and the consequences for individual children participating in the research. From a rights-based perspective, particularly the importance of considering the best interests of the child (UNCRC Article 3.1) and their protection from all forms of violence (UNCRC Article 19), researchers have a responsibility to ensure that no harm is done to individual children participating in the research, as well as attending to the long-term and/or larger good for children as social groups.

A further challenge to applying the best-outcomes approach lies in the reality that there may be both positive and negative consequences for the individual child of participating in research. For example, taking part in a research interview may have retaliatory and negative effects for the child, while the future intended outcome, such as access to a service or heightened attention to a severe social problem, could be deemed positive. When considering harms and benefits, then, it is critically important not only to consider the outcomes of research but also the research process, itself. This topic is addressed in Mary Catherine Maternowska’s case study of a survey on violence against children, undertaken with participants aged 13 to 17 years.

A range of tools and frameworks are collated in the ERIC library, which can assist with ethical decision-making. However, researchers and research stakeholders still need to carefully identify and assess the potential harms and benefits in relation to their own research and particular research context. The reflexive questions above and the ERIC Reflexive Tool can guide this process.

In some ways, individual children may be best placed to assess any risks to themselves, which is one of the reasons why seeking children’s own informed consent is so important (Laws & Mann, 2004; see also the ERIC Informed Consent Guidance page). Researchers, though, are likely to have a greater appreciation of the potential wider and long-term implications of research participation. Therefore, researchers have increased responsibility to assess risks of this nature in relation to children’s involvement in research. Seeking local or specialised advice is important, particularly when working in different cultural contexts or working with particular groups of children, in order to have a better understanding of the potential risks. Researcher responsibility is further emphasised when the children involved are particularly vulnerable, such as children separated from family in emergency and transition settings.

Researchers are responsible for protecting research participants from any physical, emotional or social harm that might result from the research (Ennew & Plateau, 2004; Laws & Mann, 2004) and must do everything possible to anticipate any potential adverse consequences. Reflecting on ethical issues from the very outset of the project, as well as throughout its implementation is key. The ERIC Reflexive Tool can help with this process. Once identified, researchers can make efforts to minimise or eliminate any potential risks of harm, distress or discomfort.

Throughout the research process, researchers need to remain alert to situated ethics – ethical issues that arise in the context of research relationships, personalities, changing experiences or the situational context of the research. As far as possible, though, researchers should be pre-emptive in engaging with ethics.

For example, certain geographical locations or socio-political contexts may carry specific risks which researchers can develop strategies to manage. In areas where armed conflict or peace-building are occurring, this might include researchers ensuring that children do not travel alone, late at night or in unsafe areas where there are landmines or other dangers (Feinstein & O’Kane, 2008).

When the potential harm is less clearly obvious or easily resolved, reflection on the multiple possibilities requires knowledge of the local context, the research process and/or topic. There may be consequences for children when they are involved in research which is consciousness-raising. Such consequences may occur, for example, where the research raises awareness of labour rights for children in situations where the child’s employment is a critical source of sustenance for the family. In another example, there may be opportunity costs if children are removed from class to be involved in school-based research.

As well as knowledge of the local context, it is critically important that researchers are knowledgeable in relation to the characteristics of the sample population with whom they are conducting the research. For example, if children from minority groups are involved in the research then researchers (depending on their own associations) may need to consult appropriately within those communities in order to identify potential harms or adverse consequences. Similarly, if the research involves children with particular disabilities it would be essential to identify potential harms to ensure children’s equitable access to research participation. Reflecting on the possibilities can help prevent or mitigate damaging follow-on consequences and ensure that researchers have information or referral sources on hand if required.

Research methods can contribute to minimising or exacerbating harm. In order to do no harm it is vital that the research methods are scientific and reliable. This underscores researchers’ obligation to ensure that children’s views are accurately reported. It can be argued that unsound designs or inadequate sampling methods are unethical, since they take up time and effort but will not produce satisfactory results or because they may unintentionally lead to the exclusion of groups of children. Reliable methods often include at least two steps in the data collection process with adjustment of the tools and/or the research plans in between; triangulation; and ensuring that the research tools chosen are well-validated and have been adapted to match the capacities of the children involved as well as the issues being researched. Large scale surveys, especially when children are not involved in the development of the survey questionnaire, and methods such as direct interviews and focus group discussions, may not be tools that are the most adequate or appropriate in research with young children.  

The predictability of risks may differ in different research paradigms. For example, in biomedical research, it may be necessary to develop medicines that are trialled on child samples, as extrapolating adult data to children is inappropriate (Yeung, 2007). It can be difficult to quantify the risk for participating children and consider these in relation to the benefits of developing medicines for children more generally. If the nature of risks is unable to be predicted reliably, then providing accurate information to children and their caregivers to enable informed consent for clinical trials becomes an essential ethical challenge.

In such biomedical contexts there is also the possibility that previously undetected conditions or abnormalities may be discovered incidentally during the research process. The revelation of such chances and consequences would cause added concern to the child and the parents, and therefore requires great sensitivity. This is discussed in the ERIC case study by Sebastián Lipina.

The use of the internet and new technology adds another dimension to conceptualising and minimising harm. Children may have unrealistic expectations of privacy, individual information may be more readily accessible, participants can provide false details or maintain fake identities (disguising adult voyeuristic or harmful intent) and the distinction between public and private domains is blurred (Alderson & Morrow, 2011 (now updated to a 2020 edition); Lobe, Livingstone & Haddon, 2007). Certain safety features, as used on websites, can be built into internet-based studies. However, it is essential that these are appropriate to children’s evolving capacities and/or that such built-in safety features are enabled by default, as evidence shows that children can struggle to make sense of user tools, safety devices, privacy settings and reporting mechanisms (O’Neill, Livingstone & McLaughlin, 2011). Where children are going online via their own laptop, mobile phone, tablet or other handheld device, they may be less open to adult supervision. While this may contribute to children’s privacy from parents or others in the environment during research participation, it also underscores the need for children to be aware and empowered with regard to internet safety risks (O’Neill et al., 2011).

In addition to the importance of identifying potential harms, a further key aspect is the allocation of time and resources to help minimise them. It is absolutely critical that ethical considerations are taken into account in the planning stage of research, itemised in the project budget and factored into the timeline, in order for ethical principles and practices to be implemented throughout each phase.

Any research involving children may cause distress and researchers need to be prepared for this. It is especially likely to be an issue when the research topic may be upsetting for children, perhaps because it is a reminder of painful experiences, or when children are particularly vulnerable. This may occur, for example, when children have been abused, maltreated, or are separated from their parents. A fundamental concern in research involving children who have been abused or maltreated is whether they might be seriously disturbed, or even re- traumatised, by the research process. In such studies, researchers can incorporate specific measures into the research design to ensure children’s protection and care, such as ensuring the child has the support of a primary carer, using a child-centred methodological approach (Mudaly & Goddard, 2009) and incorporating child-friendly debriefing processes. Where appropriate, some studies may involve recruiting children who have had prior access to therapeutic studies, which may also be a protective factor for children.

In addition to sensitive topics or situations obviously more likely to cause upset, researchers will not always be aware of topics that may be distressing for individual child participants. Seemingly innocuous questions or situations may trigger strong and unexpected reactions. Children may be caught off-guard emotionally by unintentionally disclosing too much. It is therefore important that researchers know how to respond appropriately in the face of children’s anxiety or distress. Researchers should be prepared in advance for the kind of emotional responses that children may have and seek to differentiate harm from discomfort and/or research-engendered distress.

Key considerations in pursuing research in the light of risk and harm assessment might include: the expertise and skill of the researcher and members of the research team; the level of supervision and support required from senior researchers and experts in the relevant area; and, the availability of follow-up support for children. Considerations in relation to dealing with distress are discussed in the ERIC case study by Elsbeth Robson and Ruth Evans, as they reflect on interviews conducted with young caregivers in  HIV contexts in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and in the UK.

It is also important to note that some of the worst psychosocial harm from an interview may not be apparent during or immediately after the interview session. One suggestion is to incorporate a post-interview check-in by someone who is a known, trusted support, familiar with the child’s usual behaviour, and can read the signs and find additional help if needed.

Researchers need to ensure that support is available to children, if needed, during and after the research process. An important part of research planning is anticipating potential adverse consequences of involvement in research and ensuring that arrangements are made to address these (Schenk & Williamson, 2005). It may be appropriate, in some studies, for researchers to help equip or support children’s parents or carers to respond to emotional reactions their children may have. Psychosocial support or counselling may be required for children to help them cope with the consequences of recalling distressing experiences or feelings. Other forms of support, such as health or welfare-oriented support services, may be needed to help children address difficulties that become apparent during the research process. Researchers’ responsibilities to do good and to do no harm to research participants requires them to plan for such eventualities. It may be helpful to have explicit protocols for addressing potentially concerning situations, and for making referrals (WHO, 2011).

This will also likely involve developing a list of services that offer support to children and families, that can be referred to and shared. This may involve consultation and gathering information within the local community context to ascertain organizations or agencies that are available and suitable to offer skilled support. In some contexts identifying or accessing child-focused services may be impossible for a range of reasons – support agencies may not have the capacity, they may be geographically removed or be inadequate and likely to cause more harm than good – in which case alternative strategies will need to be explored (see below). 

Lastly, the skill and responses of researchers in managing safety concerns are important, and can help children cope emotionally and facilitate transitions to the necessary services. Ideally, research staff should have training in child protection, particularly with regard to recognising and managing concerns and, where possible, work in partnership with experienced researchers and local child protection experts. Ethical supervision allows researchers to discuss concerns, seek guidance and debrief, as well as providing a forum for accountability (this is discussed further in the Responsibilities page).

In some contexts there may be a complete unavailability of services to afford child protection or attend to psychosocial or mental health consequences. For example, in some contexts, particularly in developing countries, there are no government sponsored child protection services, or there is a limited set of social services to which children and families can be referred and children may be mistrustful of social services (Abebe, 2009; Hutz & Koller, 1999; Veena & Chandra, 2007).

In the absence of child-focused services it may be appropriate to request help from organizations offering similar support. For example, if researching violence against children there may be local organizations supporting women affected by violence who are able to adapt some services to meet children’s needs (Laws & Mann, 2004). Research participants may also draw on individual resources, local culturally relevant mechanisms of support, and strong local community or faith-based organizations and groups (Ruiz-Casares, 2013). Exploring alternative strategies is discussed in the ERIC case study by Mónica Ruiz-Casares. If support services are not identifiable, and the need for support is likely, the decision to undertake the research should be reconsidered.

Reporting concerns about children’s safety is not always straightforward.

Some researchers argue that the risks to children and their families in reporting maltreatment, such as harm to children, unnecessary humiliation and stigma (if allegations are unsubstantiated) and lack of follow-up services, may outweigh the benefits (Kotch, 2000). Furthermore, it may not be in children’s best interests to report abuse, as reporting may increase their vulnerability with corrupt figures in authority (Young & Barrett, 2001).

Child protection services may be inadequate, heavy handed or dreaded by children who have had previous experience or knowledge of them. Children may already be accessing such services and may disclose the inadequacy of these to the researcher. Reporting can also be further complicated in situations in which children are living in the care of the state or a non- government organization and disclose institutionalised punishment or violence from their carers. If children are already receiving care, reporting may put them further at risk.

Research into topics where there is an increased likelihood of children being at risk, such as research with children who are sexually exploited, may be compromised by children not engaging in the research process if they expect such safety concerns to be reported by the researcher. An additional challenge for researchers in some contexts are the legal harms that can arise for children if they were brought to the attention of the authorities. For example, children who are stateless or asylum-seeking and those engaged in criminal practices, can be at risk of arrest, deportation, detention, corporal punishment and attainment of criminal records. One way some researchers manage these concerns is by ‘raising the reporting bar’ so that only really extreme cases of immediate risk would be reported. This however, must be carefully considered, supported and authorised.

In many cases, researchers may not be aware of what their actions might complicate or precipitate for a child, especially if there is little recourse to effective protective systems. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, but it is critical that researchers are aware of the possibilities and plan responses in advance of conducting the research. These should take into account the strengths and limitations of the local context, the services available, the child’s evolving capacities and individual situation, and the potential impact on them of reporting safety concerns. It is also possible that researchers stand to learn from children themselves about the potential risks and harms of them being involved in a study. A preliminary discussion with a group of children in a safe environment may elucidate ethical issues that only children perceive, such as bullying or stigmatisation or unwanted attention from public security officials.

In some research contexts tension exists between protecting children from harm and respecting their right to participate in research. Researchers’ capacity to include children in research can sometimes be particularly restricted if the research topic is considered sensitive (Powell et al., 2011) and children are also less likely to be given the opportunity to participate if they are considered particularly vulnerable (Powell & Smith, 2009; Truscott et al., 2024). In addition, children may not be included in research for pragmatic reasons, such as lack of skilled personnel to undertake sensitive research with children and lack of adequate funding. The importance of protecting children from harm is ethically mandated by the philosophical principles of non-maleficence and justice, and reflects children’s rights as expressed in the UNCRC (specifically Articles 3.1, 3.3 and 36). However, a strong protectionist discourse denies children the right to participate and express their views on matters of concern to them (Powell & Smith, 2009; Truscott et al., 2024) and children may be ‘gate-kept’ out of research on the basis of potential risk (Graham & Fitzgerald, 2010).

The tension between protecting children from harm and respecting their right to participate derives in part from the underlying conceptualisations of children held by different disciplines and across differing contexts.  To the extent that it is possible, children should be consulted about actions that may best balance their participation and protection rights, in accordance with the principles of justice, beneficence and respect.

Discrimination or bias surrounding children’s participation in research may come about as a consequence of the power relationships that exist in society and between children. Researchers are not immune from such power relationships or societal influences. Their own values, beliefs and experiences impact on children’s equitable participation in research. Therefore, gaining insight and understanding into our own assumptions, as well as the social, community and family representations around such characteristics as age and gender, is critical in ethical decision-making and can be greatly facilitated and enhanced through ethical supervision and training.

In some contexts, where there is acute social differentiation, certain children may be silenced by others. Children from linguistic minority groups, for example, may face discrimination from other children. This presents a challenge to researchers during recruitment and in data collection.

The methods used may also make it difficult for some children to participate. For example, children who are hearing-impaired may require additional support, such as the engagement of a skilled interpreter, to facilitate the process of informed consent and ongoing communication through the research process. In another example, language and social standing may influence children’s participation in focus group situations, impacting on which children’s voices are heard and whose realities are presented.  Participatory research should confront and not reinforce existing patterns of discrimination and exclusion (Feinstein & O’Kane, 2008). 

In focus group research more subtle forms of “inner diversity” (Eurochild, 2011, p.7) can also impact on children’s equitable participation, such as how they learn, communicate, solve problems, make sense of the internal and external environments, and manage sensory input. For example, some children listen best when they are engaged in a tactile manner so having objects or material for them to handle will enable them to listen more fully. In another example, “some children need to begin speaking in order to understand what they are thinking; others don’t speak until they have ‘gathered their thoughts’” (Eurochild, 2011, p. 8). Having an awareness of these differences can help researchers to develop and implement ways to address them, thereby facilitating the more equitable involvement of all focus group participants. In line with understandings of situated of in-situ ethics, researchers can become aware of discrimination, exclusion or unfair social incidents and experiences affecting children while conducting research. Researchers then have to make difficult decisions related to accountability and advocacy, as discussed in Jude MacArthur’s ERIC case study, in which an incident of bullying and exclusion of a child with disability was witnessed.

In RCTs and other experimental designs it is important to maintain random assignment to conditions, so that all children in the sample have equal opportunity to be selected in all conditions. Randomisation should be purely by chance, such as using computerised allocation or random numbers, and should not use any systematic characteristics, such as date of attendance at the clinic or social security numbers. In RCTs, the control group should be given the current best treatment, rather than a placebo, and be offered to go on a wait-list to receive the new treatment/s after the trial is completed and if the trial shows favourable results.

Children’s involvement in research design, as in child co-research, can be enormously beneficial to the research itself. It does not necessarily resolve issues of power and representation (Clavering & McLaughlin, 2010Kellett, 2010), but the meaningful participation of children and young people throughout the design and implementation of research studies can be a critical factor in the success of the project (Radford et al., 2011).

A related area is children’s views on ethics in research. A good starting point are conversations between researchers and children as part of the informed consent process (both initially and throughout the research process). Discussing ethics with children is the focus of the ERIC case study by Kitty Jurrius and is showcased in an applied way in the ERIC case study by Tim Moore.

Harms and Benefits: ERIC Case Studies

The following ERIC Case Studies offer insight into how others have navigated potential harms, risks and benefits in research involving children and young people in different contexts.