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Collecting Sensitive Data with Teens

Posted on July 24, 2014

We want teens to feel that they can trust us and tell us what's really going on in their lives, says Erika E. Forbes (bio).


Well, with teens, I mean one issue is that anyone under 18 can't legally provide their own consent to participate. We want to make sure they agree and they give their assent, and we have them sign. But technically, their parent has to sign or their guardian. So that becomes tricky I think because it's just one more person — you know, logistically, it's one more person who's schedule we have to work with to be able to get everybody to come in. And also because we want to make sure the teens feel comfortable answering questions about sensitive topics.

So if we have questions about their substance use or their sexual behavior, we want them to know that that's confidential, even though their parent has to be there to give permission, that we're committed to keeping that material confidential and that we'd like them to be open. And that's important, too. We want them to feel that they can trust us and to tell us what's really going on in their lives. That also goes up because we do ecological momentary assessment, which involves calling adolescents when they're out there in their regular lives and asking what they're doing, who they're with, what their mood is like right now. And we want them to be able to be honest and open during those, too.

So we think that's another — that adds a few other levels of challenge, first of all, just reaching people during their busy lives, you know, getting them to agree to provide us with this time. We try to keep the calls really short, but still. And also, you're providing kind of this open and non-judgmental kind of atmosphere where they feel comfortable saying, "I just smoked a joint," or, "I'm out driving with my friends." Or you know, something that might not be what they are supposed to be doing or what their parents would like to know that they're doing, but what's really going on for them.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2014 Career Development Institute for Psychiatry in Pittsburgh, PA.


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