Digital Child Ethics Toolkit: Ethical Considerations for Digital Childhoods Research

Introduction to the Digital Child Ethics Toolkit

This toolkit arose as a response to the challenges of developing ethics applications for research into children’s relationships with digital technology. For brevity, we refer to this as “digital childhoods” research. This research can involve many ethical dimensions, particularly as it often involves working with children and their families in complex settings. It is also an emerging field, which can make it more difficult for researchers and ethics committees to find standards of practice or evaluate risks and benefits.

Therefore, we saw the need for a resource that would provide researchers with practical guidance about the details of research conduct and could be used when designing research protocols and writing them up for ethics committees. There are many existing ethics guidelines that are relevant to digital childhoods research, however, these generally focus on conceptual principles while more practical advice is distributed across a large number of research papers and toolkits, and is shared informally through conversations.

To build on these existing resources, this toolkit is structured in two parts:

  • a discussion paper covering ethical issues specific to digital childhoods research
  • an appendix of existing resources relevant to the ethics of digital childhoods research.

This toolkit aims to support researchers in two ways.

Firstly, by articulating the value of digital childhoods research and the value of approaches and methods common within the field. This may help researchers when evaluating the relationship between risks and benefits and articulating this for ethics committees.

Secondly, by discussing ethical issues and challenges that can be involved in digital childhoods research and providing suggestions for how to mitigate them. This may help researchers pre-empt or avoid issues and plan for best-practice approaches to mitigating risks.

This toolkit does not aim to provide a comprehensive guide to all research methods or elements of research design that might be involved in researching young children and technology. There are excellent resources on many of these aspects, such as how to conduct research interviews or how to develop consent processes for young children. To avoid reiterating advice that can be found elsewhere, this document focuses on:

  • emerging research methods specific to research on children and technology
  • issues that are common in research about children and technology and are not well covered in existing resources.

This toolkit also specifically focuses on research with younger children (approximately 0-8 years). While any research with children and young people should be approached with care, research involving infants and young children gives rise to unique ethical concerns regarding understanding and consent, as well as the possibility of coercion and of a conflict between the values and interests of parents, children and others (National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, 2023, 67). As such, the complexity of researching with this age group presents particular challenges for researchers and ethics committees. That said, much of the content will also be relevant to research with older children.

The toolkit has also been written by researchers in Australia and thus references Australian policies and regulations at times. Most of the content, however, will be relevant regardless of national context.

The Digital Child Centre supports and promotes the principles articulated within national and international statements on responsible and ethical research. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Research merit and integrity, including likely benefit, respect for participants, appropriateness of research, with suitable oversight.
  • Justice, which recognises the right of affected groups to be included in the research endeavor, seeks fairness in recruitment and equity in benefits and burdens, and that access to benefits is fair and reasonable.
  • Beneficence, which requires that risks of harm or discomfort are minimised, and that researchers are clear to participants about risks, ensuring likely benefits outweigh risks of harm or discomfort.
  • Respect, which involves due regard for the welfare, beliefs, perceptions, customs and cultural heritage of the individuals and collectives involved in the research, ensuring privacy, confidentiality, and cultural sensitivity, and ensuring participants’ capacity and right to make their own decisions.
  • Recognition and respect for Indigenous self-determination and leadership, and research impact, value, sustainability and accountability when conducting research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In pursuit of this, the Centre has developed a policy specifically around conducting research with and for Indigenous children and families.

In addition to these principles, we also seek to conduct research that centres children’s voices by engaging them as research participants where relevant and using methods that capture their perspectives and experiences. Involving children as participants is now a well-established methodological approach, following shifts towards conducting research with rather than on children.

Involving children directly is also critical to the value of justice listed above and is in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have the right to express their views about matters that affect them. Ultimately, a child rights approach sits at the very centre of our work. Among other things, this means that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all that we do, and should guide all of our work, including our research. When considering what we research and how we go about it, therefore, we need to think beyond mere compliance with laws and requirements set by ethics committees. We should constantly ask ourselves: are we acting ethically and have we factored in the child’s best interests as a primary consideration when determining our research topics and processes?

As this toolkit covers a wide range of research contexts, methods, and cohorts, it is not designed to be read beginning to end. Rather, we encourage readers to use the interactive table of contents and the internal links provided throughout to skip to relevant sections. 

The toolkit is divided into two parts: a discussion paper and an appendix. 

  • The discussion paper begins by covering a range of foundational principles and issues. The rest of the paper is divided into three main sections: research contexts, research methods, and research cohorts. 
  • The appendix contains lists of resources, beginning with general resources and then resources relating to each subsection of the discussion paper. 

A downloadable PDF version has been published in the Working Papers section of this website.