Ethical Considerations in Recruiting Adolescents for Research on Social Media: A Case Study


Alongside the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on people’s lives and livelihoods, academia has had to adjust to a new world where in-person research may not be possible in the near future. Social media — where 45% of teenagers spend time “almost constantly” (Anderson & Jiang, 2018) — is a promising option for research with adolescents. However, this type of research presents special ethical considerations.

Just Because We Can, Doesn’t Mean We Should
On June 17th, a White PhD student tweeted that he had scraped 10,000 tweets containing the hashtag #BlackinIvory. This hashtag was originally created for Black scholars to share personal stories of racism and discrimination in academia. Within minutes, dozens of scholars commented to discourage the PhD student from conducting this research without obtaining consent. The PhD student deleted the post and apologized.

Although adolescents were not the focus, this example illustrates the ethical quandary researchers face on social media: so much data are public and within researchers’ legal rights to collect. But should we? Social media may be a relatively new space, but researchers cannot ignore historical power dynamics between historically White, upper-class academics and individuals from marginalized identities. The new public-private space of social media offers researchers entry to data about vulnerable groups without any “buy-in” or relationship building. This raises ethical concerns for researchers about their own positionality and responsibilities in conducting online research.

The Ethics of Social Media Research on Adolescents
First, should researchers collect and store data from adolescents (18 years and older) without their knowledge? According to IRB standards, researchers can collect posts from adolescents aged 18 and older. Yet adolescents’ brains are still developing the ability to make judgments about risk, and they may share sensitive data on social media — such as identities (e.g. undocumented) or activities (e.g. underage drinking). Researchers must grapple with the question of whether to store these data forever without the participants’ knowledge, particularly when researchers are in a position of power often amplified by racial, gender and socioeconomic statuses.


Second, should researchers contact adolescents on social media? In an ongoing IRB-approved study (Wilf & Wray-Lake, forthcoming), I contacted adolescents through Twitter. While I obtained parental consent before scheduling interviews, I contacted and viewed the profiles of children whose parents likely did not realize Twitter could enable contact with unknown adults. Adolescents themselves may view adult researchers contacting them on social media as “creepy” and feel threatened. In our current study (Maker Castro, Wilf, & Wray-Lake, forthcoming) several participants made their accounts private shortly after we contacted them, suggesting they were not comfortable with strangers reaching out or viewing their posts.

Third, what social media data should researchers include in publications? Publications have quoted adolescents alongside their social media handle, which often includes their legal name. Even if a participant later deletes their profile, they may still be identified through their social media handle in these publications. Moreover, with advanced search software, it may be possible to identify participants’ accounts based on a post quoted in a publication. Therefore adolescents quoted in publications may never have the “right to be forgotten.”

Fourth, how can researchers navigate their own biases and positionality? Whereas with traditional recruitment methods participants self-select into the study, on social media researchers often select participants. Researchers may scan through thousands of accounts to select participants, leading to split-second decisions about whether to include adolescents based on their profile photo and bio headline. The researcher’s own positionality vis-a-vis research participants, as well as their biases, may shape social media recruitment. For example, researchers might feel uncomfortable selecting adolescents who post sexualized selfies even if they fit the eligibility criteria.

How We Envision Ethical Social Media Research
In our current study of immigrant-origin adolescents’ civic engagement on Twitter, we followed these self-imposed guidelines:

  1. We gave participants the right to opt-out of data collection — even though they were all aged 18 or older with public Twitter profiles.
  2. In the opt-out message, we were clear and transparent about who we were, the study aims, and what kind of information we would collect. If asked, we gave adolescents the option to view the screenshots we took of their profiles.
  3. To protect adolescents’ privacy, we will not publish social media handles or bio headlines. We will only quote part of any Tweet to make it more difficult to reverse search.

This post may have raised more questions than it answered, but we hope it can help the SRA community deepen conversations about the ethics of social media research with adolescents.

Author Bios: Sara Wilf is a doctoral student in Social Welfare at UCLA. She researches youth civic engagement and activism on social media, with a focus on youth civic and identity development.

Elena Maker Castro is a doctoral student at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in the Human Development and Psychology department. She primarily studies adolescent civic development and engagement.

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