Should children be allowed to participate in psychological research?

Experiments are carried out within psychology all the time and many of these involve children, as young as babies. Many people may say that it is unethical to conduct experiments using children but I think that there are both strengths and weaknesses to this argument.

 Using children of varying ages in psychological experiments provides a valuable and interesting understanding of the development of a child’s mind and behaviour. This was shown in Piaget’s stages of development where he concluded that there were four different stages in the development of children: sensory motor stage, pre-operational stage, concrete operational stage and formal operations stage. Using children as the subjects of experiments can also provide an insight to how mental disorders or illnesses develop over time, for example aspergers or autism. Baren Cohen carried out research into autism in children and he carried out the Sally-Anne test, which measures a person’s social cognitive ability to attribute false beliefs to others.

 Carrying out research on children should be allowed if the parents have given consent, but the wellbeing and health of the child definitely have to be considered. However I don’t think parents would put their child forward for an experiment where they know it could cause physical or physiological harm. This was shown in the Bobo doll experiment where the children watched an adult (role model) be aggressive to the bobo doll and the children imitated the behaviour. This could be seen as unethical as it is teaching children violence at a young age and this could impact their personality in later life.

 However, some people would argue that children shouldn’t be allowed to take part in research as it can be unethical and cruel to the children. An extreme example of this was where children were drugged whilst participating in a fertility study. Researchers pumped 8 year old girls full of the diabetes drug metformin for four years to see how it would affect their fertility later on. None of the children had diabetes though and they took the drugs until they were 13. I think this is a highly unethical study and that it is an experiment that should never have been allowed to take place. Other more famous examples of psychological experiments using children include Little Albert and the Genie study.

 Overall as a research method using children as the participants of a study is good for looking at development and mental disorders. Despite this, I think there has to be a line that’s drawn as to what is acceptable for a child to take part in. An experiment where pain is caused should not be allowed at all in my opinion. Psychological research is a demanding area and researchers want to try out new experiments all the time and we have to accept that some of these are going to involve children.


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Posted on October 14, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I believe it is very important for research to include children, although in the past there have been ethical concerns with research such as the Money (1975) study (which ended with tragic results after it was tested to see if a baby boy who had suffered an accident during circumsicion could be successfully sex-reassigned as a girl), as well as studies you have already mentioned such as Genie and Little Albert. As long as ethical guidelines are followed appropriately, consent is given by a parent/carer and there is no obvious discomfort or unwillingness by the child taking part then I believe children should be able to take part in psychological research. Studies like Ainsworth’s strange situation and Huesmann and Erons study into the amount of television watched and aggression levels have given us so much in terms of finding out about child behaviour without any known negative effects.

  2. I agree that it is important for researchers to conduct studies on children in order for us to gain knowledge on the subject of how human behaviour develops and changes over time.
    I also agree with you’re point about research on children being highly demanding but that there should be a line drawn in order to prevent children from psychological harm. An extreme example is the Monster Study (Johnson, 1939) which involved a researcher praising the fluency of children’s speech in one group but belittling the children for every imperfection in the other group and telling them they were stutters. This resulted in serious speech problems in some of the children’s development which is highly unethical.
    So, while studies on children are important for the development of human knowledge, thankfully the BPS have recognised the ethical considerations and issued firm guidelines of how research can and cannot be conducted as this study would never be allowed to be conducted in this current time.

  3. Studies don’t just have to cause pain to be considered unethical. Experiments can also cause behavioural changes. Children, in general are easily manipulatable, this should be taken into consideration with any child participant studies. For example, the results of the bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961) have shown that children can be influence to behave negatively after watching a video, this shows the impact which a study can have on a child. Consequently, children should not be exposed to this sort of experimenting. On the other hand, it is suggested that these changes are only short term and do not affect the child. However, I still believe experiments using children is a very sensitive area and should be treated with extreme care. I agree there should be a limit to the research conducted on children.

  4. Children should be allowed to participate in psychological research so we can have knowledge into certain subjects involving children. The end point you made about there having to be a line drawn for what studies a child should be allowed to take part in does not just apply to studies with children it applies to every study. However, when conducting research on children slightly more care should be taken as children are very vulnerable and easily led.

    Informed consent is an issue when studying children as often the children would not understand the full aims of the study as they are too young, but this is overcome by permission and consent being granted from the parent/guardian as this is the only way it could be overcome. Like you said, they should only be allowed to participate if this has been granted by the parent/guardian.

  5. Providing parental consent and a safe environment, though a contraversial issue, it is essential for children to take part in psychological research. This is down to the fact they will further assist in understanding the development of the brain through the necessary socialization processes. Though they are easily misled maybe covert observation would be beneficial explaining only to the parents the basis of the research.

  6. The BPS showed the great importance of the protection of Participants. I agree with your view, and also there should be a stong measure between the protection of children and the validity of data. You could have improved your blog on why children are more vulnerable in your mentioning of Bandura’s study. Children are more vulnerable because there are evidence suggesting they may not know it is appropriate being aggressive. The children in the Bobo Doll Study may find it a game or enjoyable to be aggressive toward the doll, and by conditioning apply it to other situations like on fellow kids. So yes, we should have children being allowed to participant because it helps with the validity of our understanding, but the protection of them from physical or mental harm is more important.

  7. I think with the B.P.S guidelines involving ethics being so restrictive they leave no room for harm to be caused if the research follows them ,i think though that special attention should be taken when children are involved because they are so vulnerable ,there is also the question of informed consent and whether a child can ever really give this,however i agree with the general feeling that research involving children is an intrinsic part of devolping the profession which is psychology.

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