Involving children and young people in social research: navigating the balance between protection and participation
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This thesis is an article-based PhD. Against the backdrop of the almost universal acceptance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the scholarly works comprising the ‘new social studies of childhood’, the thesis reflects on a core ethical dilemma facing social scientists today. It explores how researchers can navigate the dichotomy between protecting children and young people from harm and respecting their competence and autonomy as individual beings to participate in research of relevance to their lives. The study is exploratory in nature, utilising primarily reflective strategies of inquiry to: reflect on participation and protection discourses and their influence on children and young people’s involvement in research; examine a researcher’s ethical duties and rights-based responsibilities; and explore solution focused strategies to support researchers to navigate the balance between protection and participation. The main body of the thesis comprises three publications. The first publication, referred to as paper one, reflects on a qualitative study with young carers in the Irish population. The paper reflects on the participation and protection discourses at play when seeking to access a representative sample of young carers. The success and limitations of the approaches adopted when obtaining parental consent and imposing limits on confidentiality are evaluated. The second publication, referred to as paper two, provides a more in-depth understanding of a researcher’s ethical duty to obtain parental consent. Drawing on the literature and a critical review of ethical frameworks, it explores how researchers can negotiate this ethical standard in the interests of involving young people in research when parental consent is not feasible or appropriate due to the nature of the study or the young participants involved. The third publication, referred to as paper three, argues that central to achieving a balance between participation and protection is the researcher’s ethical duty to conduct a rigorous and balanced assessment of harm and benefit. Reflecting on the author’s experience of conducting an assessment of harm and benefit, during the course of a baseline study on children and young people’s participation in social care services and a youth-led research project on mental health awareness, the paper presents a strategy for conducting such an assessment. The thesis concludes by integrating the learning across the three publications. It distils key messages for ethical oversight bodies and the research and academic community.