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10 things to bear in mind when researching and consulting with teenagers (12 May 18)

Simply getting them to talk to you can make them feel pretty self-conscious and silly. So finding out what they think and why is a bit tricky – but by no means impossible


That is why I asked Barbie Clarke, one of the UK’s top teenage researchers to give you the main things to think about when gaining the views of teenagers.

Here they are:

How do you define a teenager?

The concept of the teenager is relatively new, and is said to have been invented in the mid- 50’s in the US.

We think of teenagers as being 13-19, but many consider the teen years start a bit earlier, when adolescence kicks in, around 11 or 12.

Moreover it is thought that the journey of adolescence is not fully complete until we reach our mid-20’s. This is because recent developments in neuro-science show the brain is not fully developed until this age.

So the characteristics of the teenage years can begin as early as 11, and not disappear until as late as 25. So rather than thinking of teenagers as belonging to a narrow age group, it is probably better to think of them as those children who are mostly, but not all at secondary school, seeking an identity of their own, and having a sometimes difficult journey to reach autonomy.

Are teenagers ‘difficult to reach’?

Many teenagers do not naturally volunteer to take part in any exercise that takes them out of their comfort zone. It may make them feel self-conscious and vulnerable.

To make them feel comfortable you must reassure and inform. They are surprisingly forthcoming when given the chance to express their opinions, especially when they are reassured that those opinions count, and that their responses will remain confidential, and will not identify them personally.

Encouraging them to take part in research is often best done through their peer group, and appropriate incentives like mobile phone credits, or even cash sometimes help..

What happens if you are faced with a group of teenagers who refuse to communicate?

The developmental stage of adolescence can mean teenagers are happier and more comfortable communicating with peers rather than adults.

As researchers there are ways around this. Making teenagers feel comfortable in participating in research or consultation can help to overcome any reluctance they may have to take part.

Ways to enable teenagers to communicate in their own language, with the use of projective techniques, can help them to articulate their thoughts and opinions in a way that is easier for them, and less threatening than simply talking which can make them feel self-conscious and stupid.

What research method should I use?

Sometimes qualitative research works best; and sometimes quantitative research is more appropriate, so you must consider your research objectives.

For example do you need to know how many teenagers adopt a certain lifestyle? Then a quantitative sample of several hundred teenagers is called for. Or do you want to know why this lifestyle is attractive to them? In this case a qualitative approach, using in-depth interviewing techniques with small groups would work well.

Do you need to consult large numbers of teenagers about new and complex services that affect them? This might call for an immersion session where you first provide information on, say, new services, then follow up with a debate and voting.

Be careful of researching teenagers at school or college

As most teenagers are at school or college, this is often the first place to look, but there are disadvantages in using these venues. Peer group pressure may affect answers, and it can be hard to convince teenagers that their replies remain confidential in such a setting.

Time is limited, and some teachers are reluctant to spare it to help to administer questionnaires or help organise focus groups.

Having good relationships with schools helps, but don’t forget, researchers need clearance by the Criminal Records Bureau. Parental consent is not needed for most topics, but the Head needs to give permission for the teenager to take part.

Is it best to do research at home, then?

Often teenagers feel more comfortable in their own homes, and there are advantages in getting them away from their peer group if you want more honest answers.

If research is qualitative, it can be hard to find a quiet place at home to conduct the interview, and parents and siblings tend to add their own contribution. Researchers need to reassure parents that the research is being carried out for a valid purpose, and gain their permission for the interview to take place.

Care needs to be taken not to identify the teenager through film or photographs that might be taken, or through inadvertently revealing the address of the interview. Once again researchers must have Criminal Records Bureau clearance.

What are the right types of research for this age group?

Teenagers are adept at communicating on-line, so on-line quantitative research works particularly well. It is fast and easy to administer, and teenagers are likely to give honest answers.

In qualitative research there are many ways to carry out research with teenagers, including observation, ethnography, focus groups and in-depth interviews. Projective techniques are useful, too. Sometimes just observing behaviour in a school, in a shopping centre, or in the park can throw great light on teenagers’ behaviour.

Do I need to immerse myself into their world?

It certainly helps to be familiar with it.

Knowing something about the TV programmes teenagers watch, their favourite music, how they dress, and the way they talk help in making sense of research findings. It is also useful to understand the developmental stages of the teenage years.

Do researchers need to be young when working with teenagers?

No, but researchers do need to earn the respect of teenagers. This does not mean behaving like them, dressing like them, or using their language. Such behaviour can totally alienate the teenager. Remember, anyone over 20 is really old to a teenager, so they are unlikely to identify with a researcher in terms of age.

What they do respond to is a sense that the researcher is genuinely interested in what they have to say, that they are looking to the teenager to explain their world, and, most importantly, that they will not be judgemental.

What is the tension between finding the answers to emotive issues and protecting participant’s identity, and other ethical considerations?

Research with young people can focus on emotive matters like sexuality, drugs, bullying, smoking, alcohol, knife crime. To be valid you need to make them feel as comfortable as possible when responding.

All research carries a code of ethics, but when working with young people this is particularly important, and needs to be considered in full before the research.

There are for instance rules and guidelines about seeking permission to take part in research from parents or guardians. It is also essential that young people understand what they are being asked, the meaning of confidentiality, and how research findings will be used.

It is essential that researchers understand these issues, as well as the meaning of ‘informed consent’ and that the young person has a right to withdraw from taking part in a study at any time, no matter how inconvenient to the researcher.

If this topic interests you why not run an in house course on How to set up and run focus groups with teenagers? The price is fixed no matter how many attend. Email me at rod@rodlaird.co.uk 



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