This morning the Australian newspaper is reporting:
Vulnerable teenagers as young as 14, including some who had suicidal thoughts, were secretly interviewed without parental knowledge about their gender and sexuality by a university research team with links to the Safe Schools program.
The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, run out of La Trobe University, went to significant lengths to ensure its interviews with underage participants took place without parental consent when researching its report, From Blues to Rainbows.
The report funded by beyond blue can be accessed here.
Firstly, this report would not have been possible if it were not for beyondblue recognising the need for this research and providing the funding to undertake it.
Okay – but this part of the Australian report is wrong:
While the project was approved by La Trobe University’s ethics committee, the methodology appears to go against the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guidelines pertaining to the ethical conduct of research involving minors, which recommends that parental consent be obtained when dealing with “children and young people”.
No – the the National Health and Medical Research Council’s ethics rules state at pages 51 – 52:
A review body may also approve research to which only the young person consents if it is satisfied that:
(a) he or she is mature enough to understand the relevant information and to give consent, although vulnerable because of relative immaturity in other respects;
(b) the research involves no more than low risk (see paragraph 2.1.6);
(c) the research aims to benefit the category of children or young people to which this participant belongs; and
(i) the young person is estranged or separated from parents or guardian, and provision is made to protect the young person’s safety, security and wellbeing in the conduct of the research (see paragraph 4.2.5). (In this case, although the child’s circumstances may mean he or she is at some risk, for example because of being homeless, the research itself must still be low risk); or
(ii) it would be contrary to the best interests of the young person to seek consent from the parents, and provision is made to protect the young person’s safety, security and wellbeing in the conduct of the research (see paragraph 4.2.5).
The fact is that anyone could drive a truck though that rule. Apparently they have:
In order to protect the young people from being outed to their family, the young people did not need to gain parental or guardian consent to participate in this research. Online interviews with young people aged younger than 18 years were conducted by an interviewer with a Victorian Working with Children Check.
So we have the rather fascinating situation where a university ethics committee believes that it is entirely appropriate for its researchers to go online and speak to minors – without their parents consent – about their sexuality? I’m just wondering how that is “low risk”? I’m especially interested in what they did with information that some minors may have had suicidal thoughts? Is doing research into teen suicide low risk?
Second last word to Jeff Kennett:
“Sadly the reality is a lot of young adolescents do not have the courage to talk to their parents about their sexuality — some who do are rejected by their parents and are treated very badly and therefore the issue of their sexuality compounds their mental issues,” beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett said.
Indeed – that is sad. Yet I’m not convinced that speaking to strangers online about their sexuality is a substitute for speaking to family, friends, and medical practitioners.