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Under Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children must be protected from all forms of physical and mental violence, injury and abuse, neglect and negligent treatment, maltreatment and exploitation. For this to happen, we need up-to-date information about experiences of violence among children and young people.

However, the source of the information matters: children are experts of their own experiences. One of the measures of the National Child Strategy is to carry out a child victim survey, in which children and young people are able to describe their experiences of violence in different environments. The research is carried out by researchers from the University of Tampere.

Research on children and adolescents answers a number of ethical questions

Data for the child victim survey were collected from 6th and 9th graders, 12 and 15 years old respectively, in May. The pupils answered an online questionnaire anonymously during one lesson. As in previous years, the survey was conducted without the consent of the children’s guardians. This year, it was decided that in order to support the children’s right to even more self-determination than before, the guardians were only informed of the survey afterwards and only if the respondents gave their consent.

The study was given a favourable opinion by the Ethics Committee of Human Sciences, and the procedure did not cause any problems in any of the municipalities where the study was carried out. This was a considerable and positive change compared to previous studies. In the 2013 survey, it was the parental consent that almost became the biggest obstacle to the study in terms of the municipalities.

Any studies on children are a balancing act between the privacy of families, the rights of children and young people to self-determination and the need for society and its institutions to interfere. This spring’s child victim survey succeeded in striking a good balance between the rights of children and young people to self-determination and the need for protection, yet research continues to clash with practices that conflict with both the need to produce knowledge and the right of children and young people to self-determination.

While the power of guardians as gatekeepers of research has diminished, the influence of public authorities and schools in this role has grown significantly. Researchers must obtain the approval of the head teacher and municipal authorities for any studies conducted in schools and, based on the experience of this spring’s child victim survey, they are becoming the new gatekeepers. Researchers in other surveys among schoolchildren conducted in recent years have had similar experiences.

Are children and young people silenced by protection?

One major ethical challenge in doing research is ensuring that the need for municipal licencing authorities and schools to protect children does not take precedence over children and young people’s rights to self-determination. The most common reason for schools and municipalities refusing to participate in the child victim survey was that pupils are currently burdened by multiple surveys as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, and that they should not be burdened with such a heavy topic. It is important to respect the authorities’ assessment of children’s and young people’s circumstances, but silencing children and young people will lead to problems in the long term.

It is impossible to interfere in violence experienced by children and adolescents without knowing where it happens and how common it is. Only a small proportion of violence is brought to the attention of the authorities, and it is too late for preventive measures in these cases. A protective gesture, well-meaning in principle, is not, after all, in the best interests of children and young people, and there is no need to silence children and young people to protect them. Even if a study is authorised by a municipality or a school, pupils can still opt out or stop answering the questionnaire at any time. The survey is always arranged in such a way that the participants can refuse to start or continue without attracting anyone’s attention.

School is a safe and suitable environment in which to conduct the child victim survey

Another factor that supports the idea of letting children and young people’s voices be heard is the fact that the 2013 survey found that for many pupils, being part of the child victim survey made them feel relieved, and the situation appears to be very similar this year. Consequently, adults should not say that something is too stressful for children or young people without hearing their views.

The child victim survey is a typical survey for schoolchildren that aims to reach all children and young people in certain age groups, making school the safest and most suitable place to carry out the survey. There are familiar adults at the school, and the health care staff are also available if anyone wishes to discuss the topics surveyed.

Some schools explained their refusal to participate by saying that teachers were burdened by several studies carried out simultaneously. This, too, is an important message since it is not the primary task of the school to arrange surveys. It is, therefore, important for us to consider how we could make the best use of this research-friendly environment, without burdening teachers while supporting the rights of children and young people to share their experiences.

These themes will also be discussed this year in a working group set up by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare and the National Child Strategy, which will develop a working group on child abuse knowledge and promote the right of children to be heard.

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