Informed consent, minors, and blogging about your children

Informed consent and minors

If you have a background in social science at all, this will just be review. But I find it interesting to think about blogging in light of these principles.

What are the basic principles of informed consent in research?

1) The research participant should understand what he or she is agreeing to participate in, and

2) He or she willingly agree to participate.

The fundamental principal is that research participants should not be harmed in the process, and this usually includes being lied to or deceived in some way. The aims of research – scientific knowledge – should not trump the right of a human being not to be harmed.

It sounds simple enough, but research with human participants is always murky and fraught with ambiguity. How do you ensure that participants fully understand what they are getting into, or what the aims of research are? For anthropologists working in other cultural contexts, their co-participants in research (we use words like this now instead of “subject”) may have only the foggiest concept of what Western science is about; it’s just not relevant to them at all. How do you explain, then, what you are up to and why you are hanging about and observing them?

And how can you ensure that your research participants are not in any way feeling coerced into participating? You can tell them, of course, that they have the right to walk away and stop participating at any moment, but do the social norms of basic politeness imply some measure of coercion?

And who decides what “harm” means? If I ask a migrant worker in an apple orchard to tell me the story of her undocumented entrance into the United States, walking across the desert with a baby in her arms, does the trauma that surfaces during the telling constitute harm? Does she fully understand the implications of entrusting me with her story?

Ok, and what about research done with children? Are they capable of understanding what the implications are of my watching them interact with their mom, their teacher, their friends, and recording the things they say? What if their mom tells them they HAVE to let me talk to them, or they’ll be punished in some way? What if I don’t even know that their mom had that conversation with them?

Universities have developed elaborate and involved measure to ensure that the principles of informed consent are respected by anyone conducting research while affiliated with the university, not only to protect research participants but also as a CYA measure. Anything involving minors is given extremely close scrutiny since they are considered a vulnerable population, and the Internal Review Board will watch you like a hawk if you’re working with minors (or prisoners, or the mentally ill).

So what about blogging your life and your children’s lives? Do children understand what the implications are? Do we?

I think for me the point that’s still a little murky is the “harm” bit. What potential harm is being done in posting photos and stories about my children? There are some situations where the researcher and research institution decide that a little bit of harm (e.g. telling someone that the test they’re taking is measuring one thing, when it really measures something else, but if they knew what the true purpose was it would ruin the experiment) is outweighed by the good that would result from creating this scientific knowledge. In the case of my public family blog, I feel like the good that comes of posting pictures and stories – and that is, specifically, fostering relationships with extended family and friends – outweighs the potential harm of them feeling embarrassed by it later. I think. I do worry, though, about potential stalkers or pedophiles finding us via my blog. I have no idea how possible or likely that is, though. I try to be careful about the photos and stories I post, from that angle, though.

So I don’t know. This notion of informed consent has helped me think about blogging about my children since it’s something I’ve had to work with a lot as a social science researcher.

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4 Responses to “Informed consent, minors, and blogging about your children”

  1. Mel Says:

    I think you touch on something important here and that is mindfulness and intent. Does harm come inadvertently at times when we’re mindful — of course. But does it come with a higher frequency when we enter into action without thinking — of course. I don’t know if it’s realistic to truly do no harm since harm is all in the eyes of the beholder, but I do think it’s realistic to try to minimize harm by making choices that put the other person front and center.

  2. Esperanza Says:

    I find this fascinating. As someone who works in education, and used to work with patients in health studies through UCSF, I know a bit about informed consent and participation in studies and such. I never thought of blogging as a kind of experiment but I suppose it is, you are recording a life, or parts of it, just as researchers do all the time. I have been, and will be, thinking about this more. Thanks for sharing.

  3. tara Says:

    this is appropriate because I’m reading the immortal life of henrietta lacks which chronicles the development of informed consent.
    i’m not sure that informed consent does what we think it does- i sometimes feel like its much more cya than anything else… but we’ve come a long way from the times of no consent.
    i don’t see blogging as any unique from photography— so i don’t think it’s a ‘new’ problem. most people don’t think about the pictures they take and share anymore than they do about what they post, text, etc.
    it reminds me of howard’s contemplative photo course: there is a world of difference between shooting and taking a photo than making one.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      You know making the analogy to photography is very helpful for me, for clarifying my thinking, mostly because photography across different cultural contexts is something I’ve thought a lot about and had to guide students through the ethics of it as well.

      And I totally agree about how informed consent is so often really more about CYA than nobly protecting research participants. We talked about this a lot in my research design class at CU, because anthropological methods just don’t fit the usual IRB process/template very well at all – think about contexts where people can’t sign an informed consent form, because they can’t read and write, or because signing a piece of paper is loaded with dangerous implications for them. But at least it does make us think about these issues. I agree, we have come a long way.

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