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For quite sometime, the debate about involving children in research has dominated almost all fields and the main question has been pegged on the ethics of such research on children. It is for this reason that children's lives have been largely explored through the views and understandings of their adult caretakers. Besides, mitigations to conducting research on children in the past have centered on two issues; a belief that data obtained from children was unreliable and secondly ethical concerns over their vulnerability to exploitation by researchers. Thus data obtained from children was regarded as invalid and unreliable because it was believed that children were too immature to understand their worlds and lacked the necessary conceptual and verbal abilities to convey their experiences (Christensen & James, 2000).
Nonetheless, currently there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that children can be competent participants in the research process so as long as researchers acknowledge the ways in which children communicate and facilitate their participation. In the past, ethical concerns of conducting research on children have been a common reason for using adults as proxies as it was perceived that children were particularly vulnerable to research exploitation. However, since the last one decade, the literature about ethics and practice of research with children within the social sciences has increased and good practice guidelines have been developed particularly in relation to children. This has been stimulated by the increased interest in children and children's lives especially in sociological research and writing on children (Cole & Cole 2000). Subsequently, in the early 1990s, major governments' research projects especially in the United Kingdom and North America emphasized on the importance of children's views in research processes (Susan, 2007). This was and still has currently been influenced by the recognition of children's rights; for instance, in United Kingdom, there is growing recognition of children's rights especially in relation to their inclusion in decision making as a result of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the 1989 children's Act. UK Children Act of 1989 recognizes any person under the age of 18 to be a child whereas case law identifies three categories of children; tender age, 'Gillick competent' (16 years old) and those between 16 and 18 years (Peter 2002). Thus it is now possible that policy and practice initiatives in social wok, health and education are emphasizing on children's views and interest.
On the other hand, ways in which children and childhood are conceptualized has largely been dominated by socialization theory and developmental psychology. The former was the framework within which researchers studied children although it later came to be criticized for assuming that children are unfinished -immature. However, according to Pen (2004) developmental psychology provided a universal developmental perspective on childhood, borrowing extensively from the theories of Piaget. This perception influenced thinking within both psychology and sociology and was based on ideas of natural growth. It is worth noting that it is social scientists that pioneered research on children within the social framework but of late this has been advanced to the field of human development especially by neuroscientist and psychologists (Emese 2011). In this regard, new fields of research for instance neonatology has come into being. Thus, although human development is a lifespan continuum that starts at conception, recognition of distinct developmental stages is common in the medical developmental psychological research -which is usually done by applying neuroscience though its characterized by some limitations in that human development is not linear as well as the process of development varies considerably across and within various age groups (Jennifer 2006).
Ethical Considerations in Researching Children
There are three main ethical issues to consider while carrying out research involving children; scientific validity, the welfare of participants and the respect for dignity and rights of participants.
Any scientific research should be scientifically valid -something useful to the existing knowledge. Such a research should neither waste resources nor fool research subjects especially children into perceiving they are engaged in a useful undertaking when they are not. Peter (2002) in his article highlights ways in which research can add something useful to knowledge; the first is whereby new facts are found for instance in medical research where a ventilator-dependent child can be kept in hospital for a while (an example of qualitative research). In such circumstance, Peter (2002) argues that the researcher learns a lot about the research project. In this regard, any other person who carries out research in future adds nothing new, though he/she learns how to do the research. Accordingly, such 'learning research' needs to be licensed by ethical committees provided there is sufficient considerations fro welfare and rights of the participants. However, Mauthner (1997) doubts permission of such research in children; reason being research needs to only to be performed on children in case it is not possible to be done on adults.
According to Peter (2002), in carrying out research on children, the key principle behind protecting the welfare entails weighing up risks and benefits; there should not be a single participant who should be exposed to a risk or hazard which is not outweighed be a chance of benefit. Besides, it is important to put into consideration those probable risks/hazards and benefits are likely to persist with children fro a longer time based on the fact that they conform to the aforementioned principle and thus it is important for researchers to have the right risk-benefit ratio.
Dignity and Rights
The rights and dignity of children involved in research concentrates on two key areas -consent and confidentiality. In respect to consent, it is essential and only valid if consent is given by a knowledgeable individual who is sufficiently informed and gives it voluntarily. In mot cases, children cannot consent hence requiring their parents to consent on their behalf. Consent is a key aspect so as to protect the autonomy and welfare of the children. Thus, it is important to put in place an efficient mechanism to oversee this. In this regard, parental proxy consent serves as the main safeguard of children's welfare and acknowledges the role of parents (Peter (2002). In regard to confidentiality, the fundamental standard is that in research, data generated should be used for the rationale for which the proxies or participants consented to. However, in some instances, this exempted fro instance where child abuse is unearthed, the researcher is expected to relay such information to the authorities although either the proxy or the child may not have consented for the research information to be applied in such manner. Other type of unsought data that generally raises confidentiality issues is often found while carrying out quantitative research (Ibid, 2002).
Research Issues in Child Development
The major concern for researchers has been if they are capable of obtaining any knowledge about children through research. In this regard, there are ways in which researchers can manage the different cultures of childhood; they include adopting different researcher roles, reflexivity and involving children at all stages of the research process. In regard to research roles, it is proposed that researchers may take either the 'least-adult' role or befriend the child participants. However, befriending has been criticized because of the inherent power relations and in this case majority of researchers have proposed observation as the most appropriate method. Reflexivity is another way for enabling adult researchers to be receptive to their own assumptions about childhood and how this may influence the research process. Finally, involving children participants in the research process is possible; they may act as data collectors although it may be problematic in that it entails access to concepts, theories and scholarly knowledge which is unavailable to majority of research participants (Susan 2007).
Research Techniques and Methods in Child Development
The main objective of researchers is to use tools and techniques that would enable maximum participation of children in the research process. While applying appropriate methods is of great concern to all researchers, there is great enthusiasm within children's research to develop and use fun, 'child-friendly' quantitative and qualitative methods. Such methods are underpinned on the fact that they are more appropriate for children's skills and enable them to be active participants in the research process. Novel techniques which are applied in research on children are for instance sentence completion exercises, dairy completion, story writing, drawing and video recordings or taking photographs. The need to create special research techniques on children is based on the fact that communicating with children is more difficult (Susan 2007).
Ethical issues appear to be of greater concern in research on children because of children being perceived as incompetent and vulnerable. Whereas the importance of ethics has been acknowledged, some people have questioned whether 'special' child-centered ethics are necessary. Thus, it has been suggested that if the Piagetian view of children is not yet competent or fully functioning moral beliefs are rejected, then it follows that there is no need to see children as 'being a separate species for ethical purposes'. Instead it is argued that ethical issues should revolve around children's unequal power relationships with adults rather than beliefs about their innate difference. It is therefore important for researchers on children's issues to uphold ethical issues in order to avoid exploitation on children.