The role of emerging communication technologies in experiences of sexual violence

A new legal frontier?
Research Report No. 23 – February 2013

8. Researching youth, technology and sexual violence

The inclusion of this chapter reflects our desire to inform future research.60 For this reason, we outline a number of the difficulties encountered during the completion of this report, including the ethical, methodological and practical challenges we encountered in trying to recruit young people as participants for this project and what we learned along the way. In Box 1, we make some suggestions about what we would do differently.

A key aspect of this project was to develop an understanding of how online and mobile phone technologies facilitated, or were involved in, sexual violence experienced by young people. We envisaged that this would involve:

  • in-depth qualitative interviews with victims of sexual assault (self-defined) in which online or mobile phone technologies were a feature; and
  • an online "discussion board" with young people about the interface between sexual ethics, online ethics and prevention, which would run for 4-6 months.

Any research project that asks people to talk about experiences of sexual violence must navigate a number of ethical challenges. These include the risk of distressing or re-traumatising participants, the risk of making the participant identifiable, the subsequent risk to the participant's safety should the perpetrator discover their participation in the research, and the risks of vicarious trauma for the researchers. At the same time, the risk of causing distress needs to be balanced against the need to ask questions, to probe and explore the insights offered by participants. The identification of participants is limited to the confirmation that participants meet the selection criteria and any need to get in touch again (if they desire) to confirm interview transcripts. The legal system limits complete confidentiality as the courts can subpoena interview notes, transcripts and contact records.

Researchers employ a number of strategies to mitigate or contain these risks, particularly the risks of traumatising the participant, jeopardising their safety or jeopardising criminal proceedings. The trouble is that such strategies present difficulties for research that seeks to recruit young people as victims of sexual violence, especially in light of this generation's affiliation with online and networked forms of communication (ACMA, 2009; Boyd, 2007).

Challenges in undertaking the research

As noted, sexual violence represents a sensitive research area. Involving young people as the research population adds to the sensitivity. Younger victims of violence are less likely to access support services, and are less likely to disclose their experiences to unfamiliar adults (Quadara, 2008; Vynckier, 2012). In addition to this, online communication platforms present their own ethical and methodological conundrums, as evidenced by the growing scholarship on ethics and Internet-based research (e.g., Bassett & O'Riordan, 2002; Beaulieu & Estalella, 2011; Convery & Cox, 2012).

The challenges we experienced in recruiting young people came from three areas:

  • engaging young people in research on sexual victimisation;
  • using the Internet in social science research; and
  • researchers bringing an outsider's perspective.

Although these are listed as separate issues, we found that they were - frustratingly - interconnected. Halfway into the recruitment phase it became clear that our data collection method of face-to-face interviews was likely to be a barrier for young people. Were there other ways of collecting their stories? Could we use the Internet as a way of communicating with young people who had experienced technology-facilitated sexual violence? But what seemed like a solution - the Internet - quickly produced its own problems.

These challenges and the efforts to overcome them are described in the sections below.

Engaging young people in research on sexual victimisation

An early issue was the age range we had initially suggested. Our ethics application to the AIFS Ethics Committee stated that age range of young participants would be 18-25, as this would ensure that we did not need parents' consent for their child to participate. However, the project's reference group was quick to advise that this age bracket was too old. Reference group members suggested that the proposed age range of 18-25 years did not capture those individuals most likely to have experienced sexual violence through emerging communication technologies. The behaviours they were seeing were among a much younger cohort (i.e., 13-16 years). Further, it was not possible for older participants to provide retrospective accounts because the technologies have changed so rapidly, particularly since the wide availability of broadband Internet and mobile phones in the last decade. The issues raised by members include that:

  • the relatively short length of time that these technologies have been in existence and therefore accessible to young people (for instance, social networking sites such as Facebook) mean that they are more likely to be used by those in younger age ranges;61
  • cases involving 13-16 year olds are more common because they tend to have private access to computers, are less likely to speak with parents about their online activity and are also less likely to report illegal activity to authorities; and
  • sexting is more frequent with younger people, particularly those 13-15 years of age.

We anticipated that it would be very difficult to obtain ethics approval for interviewing younger participants (i.e., 13-15 years) without parental consent. Yet the requirement of parental or guardian consent would compromise participants' confidentiality. It was agreed that the age range capable of balancing all these issues was 16-20 years. We address two key issues in engaging this age group: confidentiality and researching experiences of sexual violence.

Consent, guardianship and breaches of confidentiality

Obtaining parental/guardian consent for persons under 18 years of age is a measure of protection for a young person. However, to require such consent is seen as a possible barrier to youth participation, study validity and, ultimately, relevant outcomes (particularly in research concerning the health and wellbeing of youth) (Morrow & Richards, 1996; Sanci, Sawyer, Weller, Bond, & Patton, 2004; Taraszow et al., 2010).

With specific reference to the present study, the importance of parental/guardian consent needed to be weighed against the privacy rights and ultimate welfare of the young person. Research suggests that young people do not typically disclose experiences of sexual violence to their parents/guardians, and are in fact more likely to disclose to a peer. Therefore, obtaining parental/guardian consent in this instance could constitute a breach of confidentiality and could discourage any participation by the young person in the research. Additionally, as recruitment was occurring through the Victorian Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) - an organisation that provides counselling to persons under 18 years of age without parental consent - to require this form of consent would compromise CASA's own processes.

We turned to the concept of a "mature minor". An ethical review body may approve research to which only the young person consents if it is satisfied that he or she is mature enough to understand and consent, and not vulnerable through immaturity in ways that would warrant additional consent from a parent or guardian (NHMRC, 2007).62 This principle recognises the autonomy and decision-making capacity of young people regarding matters affecting their life. (Indeed, the age of consent in the state of Victoria is 16 years.) The NSW Department of Community Services (2008) research ethics guidelines state that:

In some research with child participants, particularly where they agree to participate, keeping information about a child or young person confidential from their parents can be ethically justified. These situations include research in which the child or young person's participation needs to be on the basis that the information that the children provide cannot be provided without compromising the welfare of the child. The child or young person is entitled to privacy about his or her opinion and views. (2008, p. 8)

The AIFS Ethics Committee therefore approved the amendment of the age range to 16-20 years. To manage the potential risks associated with participant-only consent by minors, and to protect the wellbeing of young participants, we had in place a number of protocols and procedures, such as:

  • using an "opt-in" approach whereby participants contact a CASA or the researcher directly, thereby choosing in the first instance to be part of the research;
  • researchers consulting extensively with those experienced in working with and counselling youth in relation to sexual violence, prior to, during and at the conclusion of the research;
  • explaining the terms of the research (such as the meaning of, and legal limits to, confidentiality, anonymity and consent) in plain, age-appropriate language and allowing for clarification by the participant;
  • providing young people with the option of having a CASA support person or friend present at the interview;
  • maintaining the confidentiality of the participant at all times through the processes of oral consent and de-identification of transcript data;
  • providing participants the opportunity to review all transcript data and publication data prior to information being produced in any public format; and
  • ensuring that participants were aware that consent could be removed at any time up to the point of de-identification of the transcripts, and that there would be no adverse effects from choosing this course.
Researching experiences of sexual violence

Researchers involved in this field are acutely aware of the effects of victimisation on mental health, physical health, wellbeing, relationships, social networks and social participation (Boyd, 2011). In addition, victim/survivors who disclose their experiences can experience negative reactions from others, such as family, friends, and services to whom they have reported (Campbell, Wasco, Ahrens, Sefl, & Barnes, 2001; Martin & Powell, 1994; Ullman 1996).

From a research ethics perspective then, there is a high risk that participating in research that asks people to recount their victimisation will cause the participant distress, either during the interview or subsequently. Researchers have an ethical obligation to ensure that the risk and extent of distress is contained, and use a number of strategies to do this including:

  • being clear in the recruitment information and plain language statements about the nature of the research (i.e., that it will be about sexual assault or sexual violence);
  • engaging sexual assault services to assist with recruitment and providing any debriefing support the participant might require (this could involve letting the services know ahead of time when interviews are scheduled so they can be prepared should a participant contact them);
  • restricting participation to those who have accessed a support service in the past;
  • letting potential participants make initial contact;
  • monitoring distress during interview, suspending the interview if necessary, and supporting the participant to get in touch with a service immediately, if that is requested; and
  • interviewing in quiet, private and comfortable spaces.

In short, the key aim for researchers is to create a space of respect and emotional safety for participants to share their experiences (Campbell, Sefl, Wasco, & Ahrens, 2004). It quickly became apparent from discussions with some sexual assault services that young people were less likely to access services, particularly face-to-face. Conversations with others involved in youth services sector63 indicated that asking young people to speak about something called "sexual violence" might not be meaningful to them.

Our first corrective action was to change the language on the youth participant flyer. We included behavioural examples and made the language more informal in order to give participants a sense of the range of experiences we were interested in hearing about. We later considered that from the perspective of young people, speaking face-to-face to someone they didn't know about unwanted sexual experiences would be daunting. It was briefly discussed among reference group members whether we could broaden the language to sexual activity more broadly. We felt, however, that this could undermine the principle of informed consent by not being explicit about what we would be asking young people to share with us.

A second avenue was to consider using the Internet as a way of communicating with young people. Ultimately, we were interested in their stories and experiences, so we started to look at other methods of data collection that could capture these. Such methods included: email,64 instant messaging (see, for example, Hinchcliffe & Gavin, 2009), and Skype.

To use any of these methods would have required approval anew from the AIFS Ethics Committee for such an amendment (we had only specified face-to-face interviews), which presented issues for us. Eynon, Schroeder, and Fry (2009) noted that the physical distance between researchers and participants in the online environment presents challenges, particularly when trying to protect participants from psychological harm - a key concern for ethics bodies. We did not feel that at this later stage of the research we would be able to have in place safeguards for creating safe spaces for people to talk about sexual victimisation through computer-mediated formats.

Other challenges in using the Internet in research are taken up below.

Using the Internet in social science research

In preparing the ethics application for the AIFS Human Research Ethics Committee, it became apparent that setting up an online discussion board would be difficult. We had intended to use Facebook as the platform for this, as it is well suited to ongoing commentary. But the question presented itself: How would we keep this a safe place for discussion? First, there was a possibility that someone might disclose an experience of sexual violence, with the possible risks of a negative or victim-blaming reaction from another commentator. Further, given that we did not have the resources for 24-hour monitoring, we would have little capacity to support any disclosures made. Second, given the focus on sexual ethics, there was a risk that we were in fact creating a space for perpetration of the very behaviour we were researching. Third, there was the methodological issue of being unable to confirm that participants in the discussion were indeed young people. A restricted discussion format, where comments could be sent in, moderated and posted would not be able provide this either. Finally, we were advised that there was no way to completely erase discussions. These issues presented unacceptable ethical risks. For these reasons, we did not pursue the online discussion board as a part of the methodology for the study.

A second issue is the speed of technological change, and the slowness of research or, as one participant said to us, "by the time you finish writing your report, it will no longer be relevant".65 This is not specific to this project, but has been observed by a number of researchers and stems both from the nature of "Internet time"66 and from the general failure of researchers to incorporate this into research designs:

"Internet time" is a subject grudgingly acknowledged in our research designs, rather than incorporated within them … In the time it takes to formulate, fund, conduct, revise and publish a significant research question, we are all left to worry that changes in the media environment will render our work obsolete. (Karpf, 2012, p. 640)

The antidote to this mismatch is what Karpf calls "kludgy" solutions. Solutions, in other words, that are inelegant but get the job done, and which researchers describe clearly to others as part of their methodology. In certain sensitive subject areas such as ours, using untested methods halfway through the research process and having to retrospectively fit the ethics application to the online environment was simply too difficult.

Researchers bringing an outsider's perspective

Our final challenge, which we identified somewhat belatedly, was that perhaps the behaviours we were identifying as topics worthy of study, and therefore implicitly a problem, were not necessarily viewed as such by the young people we were hoping to speak with. This may be case in two ways. First, research on young people and sexual violence suggests that in general it can be difficult for them to identify particular experiences as violence (see Quadara, 2008). Second, in terms of behaviours such as consensual and non-consensual sexting, it may be that it is only adults naming it as a particular practice (like "drug-taking" or "trainsurfing"), rather being than a feature of young people's relationships. As noted by participants throughout, a lack of resonance and relevance was apparent in young people's reactions to and perceptions of cybersafety education.

What we would do differently

As noted by us earlier in the report, there is, in general, a lack of research into what the role of emerging communication technologies is in experiences of sexual violence. The issues outlined above contribute to the paucity of research available. However, in Box 1, we provide suggestions to facilitate the growth of research in this area.

Box 1: What we would do differently

  • Reframe the area under investigation as being about the role of emerging communication technologies in peer, romantic and sexual relationships, in which issues of consent, negotiation and respect can be explored.
  • Use focus group methodologies to problem-solve more "abstract" or removed instances of unwanted sexual interactions and technology (i.e., a case study approach).
  • Offer multiple methods of data collection (e.g., face-to-face, email, Instant Messenger Service/video chat).
  • Partner with services such as Kids Help Line or other online counselling services to ensure that participants who did offer experiences of sexual violence have a debriefing pathway; or develop an online space that is directly linked to or part of the service.

It is envisioned that the conduct of research concerning the social effects of emerging communication technologies will increase in the near future. In order to address a clear limitation of our research, it is our suggestion that future research remain guided by a clear understanding of the social worlds of young people, and be informed by their voices. Relatedly, research concerning emerging communications technology should incorporate, and take advantage of, the new methods of data collection afforded by this technology. Finally, cross-sector involvement is key to providing a conceptually sound understanding and ensure the effectiveness of future responses to this constantly developing phenomena in the lives of young people.


60 Roundtable participants from the research sector also highlighted the difficulties associated with the pace of technological change and suggested that research protocols are out-of-date in relation to technology and cultural change. This group provided the example of the problems associated with obtaining ethical clearance to interview young people for research purporses. Where ethical clearance is unable to be obtained, researchers must rely on perspectives from other parties, such as parents, or proxy measures, to develop the empirical base. Participants felt this hinders the capacity for research to be responsive to issues as they arise.

61 A timeline relating to the introduction of various forms of ICTs can be found at <>.

62 The United States and United Kingdom have also recognised the concept of the mature minor in their ethics guidelines (Sanci et al., 2004).

63 For example Reachout, the Inspire Foundation and Youth Advisory Council of Victoria.

64 Reflecting on her research using computer-mediated communication mediums, Shepard (2003) noted that chat room communication was slow and stilted, with gaps in responses that were difficult to interpret. Email proved a more natural modality and tended to encourage more intimate responses.

65 Comment by educator during interview.

66 This term refers to the qualitatively different nature of the Internet each time it evolves.