Siobhan McAlister (Centre for Children’s Rights, Queen’s University Belfast) and Paula Rodgers (Include Youth)

In June this year, over 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday (peace) Agreement in Northern Ireland, the UN Committee on the Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) reported in their Concluding Observations for the UK, concerns about the continued exposure of children to paramilitarism through ‘punishment’ and recruitment:

The Committee reiterates its concern about reports that paramilitary groups continue to function as alternative authorities in certain areas of Northern Ireland, inflicting punishments resulting in severe pain and suffering against people alleged to have committed criminal offences … the Committee is also concerned about reports that these groups continue to recruit children (para. 42)

Similar concerns were raised by the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child in their analysis of the child’s right to freedom from all forms of violence:

The Committee is concerned that … In Northern Ireland, children face violence, including shootings, carried out by non-State actors involved in paramilitary-style attacks, and recruitment by such non-State actors (UNCRC Concluding Observations, 2016, para. 48).

As part of our P4P project, the team in Northern Ireland have worked with children and young people in areas still impacted by paramilitaries in exploring their understandings and experiences of violence, the supports available to children, and some of the barriers to disclosing violence and seeking support. In this blog we present some of the findings from those discussions, and related research, to illustrate how paramilitary violence represents one of the most egregious, yet invisible, breaches of children’s rights in post-conflict Northern Ireland. We believe that it is important to frame paramilitary violence as a children’s rights issue to shine light on this hidden practice. Grounding it in the language of rights not only gives voice to children’s experiences, but highlights the obligations of duty bears to protect, prohibit and respond to all forms of violence against children (Art. 19, UNCRC).


Paramilitaries emerged during the Conflict/ Troubles as a means of protecting and policing communities. Due to a mistrust or rejection of state institutions, paramilitaries filled a policing void controlling crime and antisocial behaviour within communities. Despite paramilitary ceasefires (1994) and the Good Friday/ Belfast (peace) Agreement (1998) which saw the disbanding and decommissioning of paramilitary groups, and moves to legitimise state policing, some groups continue to exist in post-conflict Northern Ireland (Gray et al., 2019). Thus, within a country that has embedded human rights into many of its institutions and practices (including policing, criminal justice and youth justice) as part of the conflict transformation process, a shadow system of ‘justice’ remains which threatens children’s rights to protection from violence, and from cruel and inhumane punishment. The breach of these rights often effects the fulfilment of other rights. Yet this violence is ‘hidden in plain sight’ (Unicef, 2014), known to communities and State agencies, but overshadowed by the official discourse of ‘peace’. A discourse from which the voices of children and young people have regularly been omitted (Art. 12, UNCRC).

Experiencing Violence

Article 19 of the UNCRC reads:

States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child. [emphasis added]

 Article 37a reads:

States Parties shall ensure that a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment …

We argue that children experiencing paramilitary violence in the form of intimidation and threats (mental violence), physical attacks and witnessing attacks on others, constitutes a breach of these rights.

 While official statistics are collected on paramilitary style attacks – physical beatings and shootings – due to fears in reporting such crimes, these figures grossly underestimate their scale and frequency. Based on these statistics, however, Kennedy (2014 in Nugent, 2014) reveals that between 1990 and 2013 there were 167 recorded shootings of children and 344 recorded beatings. Between 2015 and 2018, 1488 households presented as homeless due to paramilitary intimidation (Deeney and Rutherford, 2019) – these figure are not broken down by age, but it is likely that children are in many of these homes.

Research by McAlister et al. (2018), suggests instances of paramilitary abuse to be much more frequent and widespread than recorded statistics reveal, particularly in areas experiencing the dual impacts of conflict legacy (trauma, bereavement, divisions) and poverty. Here children and young people spoke of experiencing intimidation, threats, beatings (with fists and feet, hammers, baseball bats, metal rods, chairs), kidnappings and exiling (exclusions) from their communities. Threats often started young, and a significant number of young people had multiple experiences. None of these were reported to the police.

 The following are some examples of children and young people’s experiences of physical and mental abuse, or what paramilitary groups call ‘punishments’ for alleged crimes or anti-social behaviour:

‘They bashed my knees too … it [a metal bar] was just taking chunks out of me, literally taking chunks out of me.’

‘… I came home and they were there. Two of them in my house. … they had reports of me bullying younger girls and going out to start fights with intent to harm, and this was my last warning, and if they heard of anything again they’d come back to do my knees [shoot her through the knees]’

‘Well I had to go to a certain place at a certain time, hood ripped over my head while I got questioned … Hood ripped down over my head and just put into a car and drove away… he put my hood over my head and he was ramming my head down like, I couldn’t breathe or nothing like, and he just questioned me and all.’

‘[They] kicked in my dad’s door while I was standing there … and shot my dad five times, and I was made to watch it…’[1]


That some children are more susceptible to this form of violence, as a result of their class and community background or their ‘potentially vulnerable situations’[2] (UNCRC General Comment No.13, para 72g), suggests that they are denied equal protection under the Convention (Art. 2, UNCRC – right to non-discrimination).

Impacts on the Right to Life, Survival and Development

 Failure to protect children from violence can impact negatively on their wider experiences and the realisation of other rights. The presence of paramilitaries in communities and their regulation of children’s behaviours and movements, for instance, impacts not only on feelings of safety and well-being, but on freedom of movement and association (Art. 15, UNCRC) and the right to play and leisure (Art. 31, UNCRC). Children in such communities have spoken of being ‘moved on’ when spending time with friends on the streets of their neighbourhoods (see McAlister et al, 2009).

The impacts on education are also evident, whereby experiencing violence can lead to aggression, acting out or disengaging. For those exiled from their local community, this can also mean exclusion from education – one young man told of how, on receiving an exclusion order from his community, he was subsequently excluded from college as he was deemed a risk to others, hence impacting on his right to education (Art. 28, UNCRC) (see McAlister et al., 2018).

As noted in UNCRC General Comment No. 13, the impacts of violence against children can be ‘devastating’. For those physically and mentally abused, the consequences can be immediate as well as long term, impacting on their right to survival and development (Art. 6, UNCRC), their ‘physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development’ (Art. 27, para. 1, UNCRC). Trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidality, and drug and alcohol use are regularly discussed by young people in research. Speaking of their peers, a young person in the P4P project told us their friend explained his drug use as follows:

‘paramilitaries beat us for taking prescription drugs and selling drugs. But the only reason we take drugs is because we know we are going to get shot. And we don’t want to have fear.’

States Obligations and Responses

UNCRC General Comment No. 13 makes clear States obligations to: prevent violence; protect child victims and witnesses; investigate and punish those responsible; provide access to redress (para 5). Yet low clear up and prosecution rates act as barriers to reporting. Figures show that of 317 reported paramilitary-style attacks between 2013 and 2016, formal charges or court summons were brought in only 3% of cases (Madden, 2017). Indeed, children themselves question the State’s ability and willingness to ‘protect, prohibit and respond to’ (para. 11a, UNCRC General Comment No. 13) paramilitary abuse. Young people involved in a consultation on the Local Policing Review with Include Youth, for example, expressed the view that:

‘They [the police] know fine rightly who they are and so if they really wanted to, they would arrest them.’

The fact that the police have a role in issuing some formal warnings from paramilitaries[3] is proof to children that they are not acting in their best interests, nor are they protecting them. As children in our P4P project expressed:

Police are the ones that give you the warning…. If the cops could do something about it, they wouldn’t give you the warning. They would sort it out…They don’t protect you. No.’

While these actions are undertaken as part of the States duty to protect the right to life (Art 2, ECHR), they demonstrate the real challenges in applying human rights to the context of paramilitary violence. In effect, the same action taken to protect life might be viewed as State actors being complicit in rights violations. The impact is that this essentially feeds into notions that the State cannot protect communities. Summing up the feeling of hopelessness regarding paramilitaries, another child in the P4P project simply stated: ‘No one can help you from paramilitaries.’

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognise that ‘securing children’s rights to survival, dignity, well-being, health, development, participation and non-discrimination … are threatened by violence’ (UNCRC General Comment No. 13, para. 13), and that ‘preventing violence in one generation reduces its likelihood in the next’ (ibid., para. 14). Yet only recently, some twenty years after ceasefires and peace agreements, has it been officially acknowledged that children continue to be physically and mentally abused as a result of conflict legacy.

Three years after the Fresh Start Agreement (2015) in which the Northern Ireland Executive outlined its plans to ‘end paramiltarism’, stories of brutality are reported in the media on an almost weekly basis and clear up rates remain low. This is recognised by the UNCAT who recommend:

the state party should: (a) Strengthen its efforts to promptly and effectively investigate cases of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland, including against children, ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, and ensure that victims have access to effective protection and can obtain redress’ (UNCAT Concluding Observations, 2019, para. 43a)

While there have been a number of recent programmes and investments aimed at tackling the victimisation of children through attacks and recruitment, and challenging social and cultural attitudes through a media campaign highlighting and condemning paramilitary activity, their impact is yet unknown, and other actions have been slower to progress (IRC, 2018).

The Fresh Start Panel (2016) and the Independent Reporting Commission (2018) have both enforced the need to address systemic issues – material deprivation, social and economic stability, education and employment opportunities – drawing attention to the link between social deprivation and paramiltarism/ conflict. Yet in the first review of the Fresh Start Implementation Plan, it was some of these systemic issues that were highlighted as requiring further action. The Independent Review Commission (2018: 67-69) stated, for example, that a ‘stronger cross-departmental approach’ was required to further ‘steps to significantly and measurably improve the educational and employment prospects of children and young people in deprived communities’.

This call for more effective cross-departmental working is not a new one. Voluntary and community organisations working directly with children and young people have been asking for this for many years. In many instances these same organisations have been picking up on the failures of government to respond to the systematic issues impacting on children’s lives. They are working with young people who have been failed by the government, who have not had the statutory support they needed at the time they needed it most. It is these young people who are most vulnerable to paramilitary abuse. An effective programme to tackle paramilitarism must have at its core an urgent response to the realities of young people’s lives – lives which are characterised by financial struggles, poor mental health, a sense of hopelessness with regard to education and employment opportunities, and an overwhelming sense that they are not part of a community or a country emerging from political conflict.


The Independent Reporting Commission (2018: 7) note that a lack of working Executive[4] in Northern Ireland has significantly impeded commitments to tackle paramilitarism. While it is certainly true that the political vacuum has not been conducive to developing effective intervention in this area, it cannot be given as the sole reason for inactivity and progress. There was a distinctive lack of attention and prioritisation given to these issues even when the Executive was fully functioning. As outlined earlier, a recognition of the need to address structural and systemic under-investment related to conflict legacy, is not new. State actors have also been aware that in the 20 years after ceasefires and peace agreements, that some children continue to experience physical and psychological violence in their communities. While perhaps silenced, these issues have certainly not been hidden. Children’s rights advocates, youth charities and campaigning groups and various United Nations Committees have all raised concerns. And while the lack of a working Executive may represent a current stumbling block to action, the lack of priority given to these issues more generally raises bigger questions about the low pecking order that children rights issues have for government, and the failure to fully understand the impact of the conflict legacy on children.

 We would like to thank Dr Bronagh Byrne, Centre for Children’s Rights, QUB for her helpful suggestions in the framing of this piece.


Alderdice, L., McBurney, J. and McWilliams, M. (2016) The Fresh Start Panel Report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland.


Deeney, D. and Rutherford, A. (2019) ‘2,000 households forced out of their homes- paramilitaries blamed for 73% of cases’, The Belfast Telegraph, 03/01/2019.

 European Convention on Human Rights (2010).

Gray, A., Hamilton, J., Kelly, G., Lynn, B., Melaugh, M. and Robinson, G. (2018) Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, No.2. Belfast: Community Relations Council.

Include Youth (2018) Response to Local Policing Review Consultation: engagement with young people on the local policing review.

Independent Reporting Commission (2018) Independent Reporting Commission, First Report. Belfast: IRC.

Madden, A. (2017) ‘PSNI clear 10 of 317 paramilitary-style ‘punishment’ attacks’, The Irish News, 27/06/2017.

McAlister, S., Dwyer, C. and Carr, N. (2018) Experiencing Paramilitarism: Understanding the Impact of Paramilitaries on Young People in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Centre for Children’s Rights.

McAlister, S., Scraton, P. and Haydon, D. (2009) Childhood in Transition: Experiencing Marginalisation and Conflict in Northern Ireland. Belfast: QUB.

Northern Ireland Executive (2015)  A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan. Belfast: NI Executive.

Nugent, M. (2014) ‘They shoot children, don’t they? Part 1 of report on paramilitary attacks on children in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 2013’. – Accessed 20/08/19.

Unicef (2014) Hidden in Plain Sight: A Statistical Analysis of Violence against Children. New York: Unicef.

United Nations, Committee against Torture (2019) Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Geneva: United Nations. CAT/C/GBR/CO/6.

United Nations, Committee on the Rights of the Child (2016) Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Geneva: United Nations. CRC/C/GBR/CO/5.

United Nations, Committee on the Rights of the Child (2011) General Comment No. 13: The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence. Geneva: United Nations. CRC/C/GC/13.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).


[1] Quotes taken from research carried out by Carr, Dwyer and McAlister, 2016

[2] Research suggests that it is children with already difficult life situations who are most vulnerable to paramilitary abuse – e.g. those with experiences of care, with chaotic home lives, unstable housing, drugs and/or alcohol issues, in contact with the criminal justice system (e.g. Include Youth Response to Local Policing Review Consultation, November 2018; Mc Alister et al., 2018).

[3] The police have a duty to deliver a ‘threat to life’ notice when they are aware there is a risk of serious harm to an individual. This complies with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (Osman vs the UK, 28 oct 1998) regarding States obligation to protect life when they are aware of a real or immediate threat, in order that measures can be taken to avoid the risk to life.

[4] On 9th January 2017, the devolved power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive, collapsed following the resignation of the Deputy First Minister. The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for the region, but has not met since January 2017. With no functioning government, NI has effectively been run by civil servants with limited decision making and legislative powers.



Katrina Lloyd, Siobhan McAlister and Michelle Templeton – Centre for Children’s Rights, Queen’s University Belfast.

As part of the P4P project, the QUB team worked with two advisory groups of children to design a survey (St Ita’s Primary Schooland Include Youth). Some of the children in these groups have direct personal experience of violence. The aim was to seek the views of children and young people aged between 8 and 18 years across six countries:Austria; Belgium; Germany; Northern Ireland (NI), Republic of Ireland (RoI) and Romania. The survey was translated into five languages and piloted/ tested with small groups of children in each of these countries. Parnters then asked around 200 children in their local area to complete it. Due to time restraints, and the aims of the project (to inform training resources), a convenience sampling method was employed to gather the views of 8-18 year olds in two school settings (primary and post primary) as it was assumed that younger children and teenagers understanding and needs may be different.

Children were asked about different behaviours and if they thought these constituted violence or harm. We also asked what they would do if they experienced violence and whom they would most likely go to, to seek help.There were also questions asking what children and young people think would be most useful if they did ask for help.

In total, 1,274 children people completed the survey in their schools (46% were aged 8-12, 52% were aged 13-18 and 2% did not answer). Just over half identified as female (51%), 44 percent as male, 2 percent said they were neither male nor female and the remainder either did not want to say (2%) or did not answer (1%).

In this blog we present some of the findings from the survey. Here we focus on the overall sample. There were also some interesting findings specific to each region and the P4P partners have reflected these in their training resources.

Understandings of violence

Violence is a complex issue and takes many forms. Our work with the advisory groups revealed that there are some behaviours or actions children and young people understand as violence/ abuse more so than others. Based on the definition of violence encapsulated in Art. 19 of the UNCRC, we worked with the advisory groups to come up with a ‘child-friendly’ definition. Art. 19 reads:

States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

The children from the advisory group changed some of the wording to what they felt better explained concepts like ‘neglect’, ‘maltreatment’ and ‘exploitation’, to other children their age. Their definition was:

‘Violence means: physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, not caring for children, bad treatment, using children to make money, and sexual abuse’.

This was used as the basis of constructing questions to ask in the survey in order to ascertain children’s understanding of different forms of violence. Those completing the survey were asked to tick whether they thought a range of examples were, or were not, violence (e.g. ‘A child being physically hit or punished’; ‘A child being used (or forced) to make money’).

Q.2 Who would you go to for help
Figure 1: Developing survey questions with young people's advisory 

Below are some of the key findings:

  • Children were most likely to say that physical abuse (79%) and sexual abuse (69%) were examples of violence.
  • Only around one third (36%) thought that child neglect was an example of violence.
  • More girls than boys defined all the examples provided as violence/abuse; this was particularly the case with sexual abuse (78% and 60% respectively).
  • More young people (those aged 13-18) than children (those aged 8-12) defined the examples provided as violence. The difference was most notable for sexual abuse with 78 percent of the older group, compared with 60 percent of the younger group, saying this was an example of violence.

Responding to violence

Children were asked what they would be most likely to do if they experienced harm. They were provided with a list of options informed by the advisory groups. Here are some of the main findings:

  • A little under half (48%) of those who completed the survey said they would tell someone if they ever experienced violence. Girls were more likely than boys to say that they would tell someone. Younger children (aged 8-12) were more likely than older children (aged 13-18) to say they would tell someone if they were harmed.
  • The next most frequent response would be to defend themselves physically (28%). Boys were more likely than girls to say they would physically defend themselves.
  • Only 6% of children said they would say nothing/ keep quiet if they experienced violence/abuse.

Barriers to seeking help

One of the aims of P4P is to enhance understanding of issues and factors that may mitigate against children seeking support if they experience violence. If professionals understand what might act as barriers to reporting violence or seeking support, they may be able to respond to these.

Those who completed the survey were provided with a list of ten possible reasons why children might not ask for help if they were being harmed by someone. This list was developed in consultation with the advisory groups. Respondents could tick as many reasons as they wished.


Figure 2: Final Survey (Hungarian)

The top five chosen reasons are displayed in the table below:



Top 5 selected


They might be scared it would make things worse or they would be harmed more 66
They might think the person would find out 55
They might be embarrassed or self-conscious 40
They might not know where to go to get help 38
They might think no-one would believe them 33

Best sources of information

It is important to know how children and young people prefer to receive information about violence and available supports should they experience it. There might be important differences in what adults think is useful and what children think is useful. Those who completed the survey were asked what they thought were the best ways for children their age to receive information about violence. They were provided with a list of possible sources and could agree or disagree whether each was useful.

These are some of the main findings:

  • Almost three-quarters (73%) of the children thought that the best way for children to learn about violence and how to get help if they experience it is for this to be taught in schools by teachers.
  • The second most popular method of learning was for it to be taught in schools but not taught by teachers (60%), but by someone like a visiting expert or professional.
  • The least likely method of learning selected by those who completed the survey was social media sites (29%).
  • There were few differences by gender, but some notable differences by age. For example, many more young people (13-18 years) than children (8-12 years) agreed that information or help should come from social media sites (39% and 19% respectively), from a website where you can look up information (61% and 41% respectively) at leisure time activity clubs (42% and 28% respectively) and through magazines/leaflets/posters (46% and 28% respectively).
  • Out of all the possible ways to get help, children were asked to choose the one they felt was the best. Eight out of ten respondents thought the best way to get information was either to talk to someone personally (72%) or through telephone helplines (8%). When helping us to interpret the information from the survey, one member of the children’s advisory group commented that, ‘you can’t talk to a leaflet’.

Best type of person to help

The final section of the survey asked about the qualities children felt were important in a person who could help should they experience violence. There were nine qualities to choose from and children chose the importance of each on a 4-point Likert scale (ranging from ‘Not important at all’ to ‘Very important’).

The qualities deemed most important were:

  • Someone who listens and takes children and young people seriously (71% felt this was very important)
  • Someone who can help get it stopped (65% felt this was very important)
  • Someone who can keep it private if they can (56% felt this was very important)
  • Someone who will believe them (55% felt this was very important)

Key learning and messages for professionals

Adults are often reticent to talk with children about violence. This is because of concern that children are too young to understand such a complex and sensitive issue, or that to talk about it might be upsetting or traumatising. The P4P project is based on the premise that children have a right to be consulted about issues that affect their lives, and that in order to design meaningful child-centred responses to children who experience violence, we must first ascertain their knowledge, views and needs.

This consultation with children revealed that while many understand physical violence, there is less understanding of other forms of violence, particularly neglect. If children are not able to identify violence and the wrongs against them, they may not know to seek help. Indeed when we discussed some of the survey findings with our new advisory group (from Newstart Education Centre) they felt that the fact that younger children are less likely to understand sexual abuse as a form of violence made it more important to teach them about this early on. If they do not know it is abuse, they cannot recognise it as such.

While it is encouraging that only a small percentage of children reported that they would keep quiet or say nothing if they experienced violence, it is noteworthy that the older children get, the less likely they are to ‘tell someone’. We explored some of the reasons for this in workshops with children who had direct experiences of violence. Some noted that they were less likely to tell someone as they got older because when they had told someone when they were younger it had had little impact (in terms of getting it stopped or finding a solution that met the needs of the child). This demonstrates the importance of effective responses when children first disclose.

Responses to the range of questions on learning about violence and how children can seek support revealed the importance of age-specific information and the medium by which it is communicated. Given that the sample was schools-based, it is perhaps not surprising that they identified this as the most useful place of learning. Yet views on whether this should be taught by teachers or outside experts or professionals did vary by age. Likewise older children (aged 13-18) were more likely than younger children to agree that additional methods of information were useful too – e.g. websites, leaflets and magazines, social media – this may reflect differential access to these resources. Overall, however, children of all ages disproportionately prefer to receive information and support from ‘someone talking to them personally’.

If this is the preferred method of communication and support, then ways in which adults interact and communicate with children are important to consider. Professionals learn methods of communication in training, yet these may not be child-informed, child-centred or child-friendly. We spent time with our advisory groups exploring what, in their experiences, were the traits or characteristics of people who had supported them in the past. Unsurprisingly, those completing the survey rated most of the characteristics as ‘important’ to some degree. However, those characteristics which were rated most frequently as ‘very important’ were themes that emerged throughout our later consultations with children who had experienced violence. That is, the importance of listening to children, taking them seriously and taking action.

Explorations of these findings with the advisory groups resulted in discussions of how professionals can ‘appear’to be listening to children (but are not hearing or understanding). These issues emerged again in focus groups with children who had experienced violence. Some felt that professionals did not trust or respect children’s views because of their age or their background (e.g. they were known to the police) or because it did not fit with professionals view/understanding of the situation. Others noted that professionals made decisions without informing children, or that they had listened but did not act and did not feedback why no action was taken or, according to the child, had not acted in their best interests. This demonstrates the importance of discussing and feeding back on decisions made with children – explaining what can and cannot be done, and why.

Discussing survey findings with children and exploring them further in focus groups can contextualise some of the findings presented here and clearly reveals that for children, listening alone is not enough. Hence the two highest ranked characteristics of someone who could help if a child is experiencing violence or harm are: someone who listens andtakes children seriously andacts on what they have been told (in consultation with the child). If professionals want to build the trust of children to disclose personal and difficult experiences, they should be aware of what children need most. Not listening, understanding, taking effective action, and feeding back to the child, can have devastating consequences:

‘We said a lot of things, but nothing changed’ (Child migrant and refugees, Austria)

‘They don’t listen … If I am [needing] help for stuff like sexual stuff and all, they do nothing. They wouldn’t even give a fuck. No one helps you.’ (Children living in a conflict-affected community, N. Ireland).




Figure 3: Information leaflet designed by children and young people’s advisory group to be given to all children completing the survey (adapted and translated into German).



Ethical issues in research with children and young people

Stefaan Pleysier1, Katrien Herbots2,1, Danielle Kennan3, Katrina Lloyd4


One of the assets of our Participation for Protection (P4P) study is, without a doubt, that we do not study the experiences and needs of children confronted with violence from an adult or professional perspective, but from a children’s perspective. In looking at the literature and previous research on the experiences and needs of children confronted with violence, it becomes clear that many studies were conducted onchildren, much less however withchildren. In doing so, we enable the voiceof children by involving them in different phases of the study, and giving them a central role in the construction of the methodology of the study at stake. A children’s rights and perspective is central to P4P and to all of the institutes and researchers participating in the study.

This is however not a self-evident road to follow. Compared to traditional research on children, a study with children and young people confronts us all the more with the many ethical issues related to this type of research. Moreover, the international component of the P4P study, active in 6 different countries (Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Romania) adds to this complexity.

In this blog, we will reflect on some of the ethical issues we were confronted with in administrating the school survey to a general sample of pupils and students, and conducting the working groups with specific groups of vulnerable children and young people. We will start off with three cases, dilemmas if you wish, where we were confronted with the complexity of doing research with children in a real life context. Following this, we will ask ourselves whether ethical codes or guidelines, or a submission and subsequent approval by the ethics committee(s) can help us in these particular cases or dilemmas. Over the last two decades, ethical codes, considerations and committees overseeing research in the social sciences have continued to gain importance, especially when conducting research with vulnerable groups. We will argue that these codes, for a specific reason, tend to emphasize ‘protection rights’ as opposed to children’s ‘participation rights’, and will promote a different, more reflexive and relational approach to research ethics (Lauwers & Van Hove, 2010: 350).


Three cases to start with

The first case relates to the school surveys we administered in the first phase of our P4P project. After consideration and approval by the ethics committee[1], we used a passive informed consent (opt-out) for parents. As the surveys were administered at school, we gave a large degree of freedom to schools in distributing these informed consent letters to parents. Upon visiting the schools, however, it was not always clear how and to what extent all parents really had seen the information leaflet with the attached form enabling parents to opt out and made an informed decision not to opt-out. This experience raises a number of questions related to the meaning and value of the passive informed consent of parents. Can we rely upon schools to distribute informed consent forms to parents? Can we rely upon children if they say their parents saw the form and were okay with them participating in the study? Is the use of forms and the information we provide on the survey appropriate communication bearing in mind the large differences in the socioeconomic status of pupils and their parents? Should we perhaps switch to an active informed consent by parents, knowing this might lead to some children who would like to participate but for some reason do not have the opt-in consent of their parents? Should a different approach be adopted for different age groups?

In a second case, again related to passive informed consent, we were indeed actively informed by some parents, using the opt-out form, deciding that their children should not participate in the survey. After informing schools and/or teachers about this, we witnessed that some children (aged 13, 14…) were taken away from class ‘because their parents did not want them to participate in the study’. In some cases they were subsequently given a ‘different task’. Here, parental informed consent was demonstrably respected, but opened up an array of new queries. Is it self-evident to give priority to a parental opt-out over and above children’s informed consent and willingness to participate? What about the children’s right to participate and voice their opinion? What about potential stigmatization when excluding children from participating in a survey because that is what their parents want? Or when taking children out of the classroom during the survey, giving them ‘a different task’, even though it is the researchers that have imposed on their routine class time?

A third and final illustrative example refers to the second part of the P4P study where we organized focus groups with vulnerable groups. In one of these focus groups, with girls in a juvenile justice institution, we asked for informed consent from the girls at the start of each of the two sessions. So, when starting the second session one girl, clearly stressed, she ‘really did not want to participate’. Apparently, the girls were making meatball soup just before, but she was asked to leave by the youth practitioner at the centre since she had participated in the first focus group of the study. As she chose not to participate now, in line with our ethical standards, we said to the girl that she could leave if that was her decision -which she did. Afterwards, it turned out she was also not allowed to go back to the original class to finish the soup as she failed to keep her previous ‘promise’ to participate in the study. This was all the more painful as we heard that upon entry in the institution, the girl stated she was vegetarian because she heard that meat dishes at the institution were bad. Since then, she hadn’t eaten meat and was very much looking forward to the meatball soup…

So, in all three cases we operated within the standards of our ethics committee approval. Formally, there are no ethical issues or concerns; however, in the practice of doing research, we were clearly confronted with a number of situations and questions that made us reflect on the ethics of doing research with children and young people, perhaps over and beyond ethical codes and committees. Ethical research is evidently not fully covered and guaranteed when gaining ethical approval. Ethical questions may also arise and perhaps even more so during the course of (‘doing’) the research. Ethics are therefore situational by nature. Ethically sensitive issues and ongoing, unanticipated challenges may, beyond gaining approval, occur in the moment as research unfolds (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004; Reid et al., 2018: 70).


The origin of ethical codes

Ethical codes, and subsequent committees, have however a long and significant history. More specifically, we see them emerging in the second half of the 20thcentury with a specific and logical aim, given the post WWII context, to protect the rights of research subjects in social, behavioural and biomedical research (Singer, 2008). The Nuremberg Code (1947) was an immediate answer to the serious physical harm and psychological distress caused to human subjects because of medical experiments during the war (Powell, Fitzgerald, Taylor & Graham, 2012). It was the start of an ongoing development of ethical codes and guidelines, originally aimed at medical research and soon afterwards adopted for research in social sciences.

Following the Nuremburg Code, the Helsinki Declaration and the Belmont Report are often referred to as landmarks in the development of ethical principles for research. The Helsinki Declaration (1964), adopted by the World Medical Assembly in the aftermath and increasing awareness of the violations and atrocities of Nazi Germany, defined ethical responsibilities both of physicians to their patients as well as to the subjects of biomedical research (Singer, 2008: 79; Powell et al., 2012: 8). The declaration specifically urges for special attention and protection for vulnerable subjects, for ‘those who cannot give or refuse consent themselves, for those who may be subject to giving consent under duress, for those who do not benefit personally from the research and for those for whom the research is combined with treatment’ (Singer, 2008: 79). The debate on assent/consent when involving minor children in research often refers to these stipulations in the Helsinki Declaration.

The Belmont Report (1979) advanced three principles for research with human subjects: beneficence, justice and respect (Singer, 2008: 80). Beneficence refers to the importance of minimizing possible harms and maximizing benefits for research subjects. The principle of justice proscribes a fair balance between those who bear the burdens of research and those who benefit from it. Respect refers to the importance of informing potential respondents to the level that they are able to knowledgeably participate. This principle is translated in the ethical requirement to obtain informed consent from participants (Singer, 2008: 80).


Protect the vulnerable

As mentioned, the structural misuse of human subjects in medical and psychological research and experiments in wartime was a clear and unmistakable cause for change in research practices with human subjects. The fact that also during the second half of the twentieth century several clear violations of research subjects’ rights occurred, strengthened the concern and need for ethical codes, and the search for stronger protection of research subjects. One frequently mentioned illustration of such a misuse of research subjects was the Tuskegee syphilis study that ran until the early 1970s in the US (Singer, 2008: 83). Poor black men were enrolled in this study with the aim to observe the natural course of syphilis. The subjects ‘were led to believe that they were receiving treatment; in fact, no treatment was offered them even after penicillin, a highly effective treatment, became available, and most of them died’ (Singer, 2008: 93).

According to Trussell our understanding of ethical issues in research to a large extent reflects the ‘paradigms and practices’ within a particular socio-historical context’ (Trussell, 2008 in Powell et al., 2012: 8). Given the specific historical context of origin, it is not surprising that ethical guidelines following these landmark codes – Nuremberg, Helsinki, Belmont – have as a foremost concern the need to protect research subjects from malicious research practices, especially if these subjects can be classified as ‘vulnerable’. The Helsinki Declaration as already highlighted specifically emphasises the importance of protecting categories of vulnerable respondents. For obvious reason, children and young people are often singled out as ‘vulnerable’ and requiring special protection and care. As with other vulnerable groups (e.g. refugees, minorities, disabled or elderly persons…), children and young people are believed, because of their age, ‘to be unable to make fully informed, voluntary choices about research participation, and therefore require special procedures either to prevent coercion or to protect them from risk of harm, or both’ (Singer, 2008: 88).

In their international literature review on ethical issues in undertaking research with children and young people, Powell et al. (2012: 8) state that ethical considerations in doing research with children is ‘embedded within particular contextualised understandings of children and childhood’. The protection of children as vulnerable research subjects is indeed in line with a traditional view of, and discourse on, children as being ‘passive, incomplete and incompetent, not fully human until they reach the state of adulthood’ (Coyne, 2010: 229). From this angle, it is assumed that children lack the cognitive maturity and moral development needed to fully understand and therefore participate in research in an informed way. It has led the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to reiterate the need for parental consent for all children aged under 18 (Coyne, 2010: 229; Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2012).


Children as ‘beings’ vs. ‘becoming’

Discussions about child participation are underpinned by the perspectives a society (or discussants) holds towards children. These essential perspectives, which frame arguments and discussions about children’s participation, cut across academic disciplines and all kinds of research contexts (Herbots & Put, 2015: 160). Childhood studies and a children’s rights framework challenged the traditional welfare view of children as ‘becoming’ in favour of viewing children as social actors and competent ‘beings’, emphasizing the importance of listening to and voicing children’s views (Powell et al., 2012: 9; Coyne, 2010). This perspective of children as ‘beings’ implies that we should see children as capable agents, able to understand and, decide whether they want to participate in research or not (Lundy & McEvoy, 2012). Indeed, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) advocates ‘the right of every child to self-determination, dignity, respect, non-interference and the rights to make informed decisions’ (Coyne, 2010: 235). Children should be able to freely express opinions and have these taken into account in any matters that affect them (Article 12, UN Convention of the Rights of the Child). It has led some to query the requirement of parental consent for all research involving children, given its exclusionary consequences at times and its failure to recognise the competence of older children. (Coyne, 2010; Kennan, 2015).

This is of course not to say that protecting children from harm should not be a genuine concern. However, it does imply that a strong protectionist discourse can ‘deny children the right to express their views on matters of concern to them’, and ultimately even gate-keep children out of research because of a potential risk (Powell et al., 2012: 2, 24). The dichotomy in thinking about children (Lauwers & Van Hove, 2010) is therefore transcended by a more pragmatic third dimension which combines these two perspectives in recognizing the child as a subject of rights and simultaneously as a subject of guidance and protection (Hemrica & Heyting, 2004; Röbäck & Höjer, 2009).

A ‘hypervigilant’ approach, backed by a restrictive ethical framework stemming from medical and health research, could lead to social science researchers ‘avoiding studies with children who may be regarded as particularly vulnerable, leading to under-representation of those children’ (Powell et al., 2012: 47). So a blind adherence to e.g. the parental consent requirement for children’s participation in research as an ethical standard, might very well result in the denial of the ethical principle and children’s right of respect for the child’s competence, generally assessed by the level of understanding, maturity and/or age, and the capacity for autonomy (Herbots & Put, 2015: 161; Coyne, 2010: 235).

More generally, Graham & Fitzgerald (2010: 139; Powell et al., 2012: 47) tend to see a paradox where indeed we see from a certain perspective a growing recognition of ‘the agency of children and their capacity to participate’, while we seem to witness at the same time ‘an increasingly ‘nervous’ regulatory environment in relation to ethics committees and children’s involvement in research processes’. Furthermore, an approach where we see children as competent agents, where we actively negotiate and balance the need to protect children and their right to participate and make informed decisions, indeed ‘questions the assumptions that ethics can be reduced to codified sets of principles, and that following these systematically will make research more ethically sound’ (Powell et al. 2012: 9).


A reflexive and relational approach to research ethics

Therefore, we follow Lauwers & Van Hove (2010) and argue for an alternative approach to research ethics which is less focused on rules and regulations and more (self)reflexive and relational by nature. In a (self-)reflexive approach the researcher questions on the one hand his/her motivation, assumptions and interests and recognizes on the other hand ‘knowledge as constructivist, developed throughout the research process and contingent upon existing understandings and beliefs’ (Reid et al., 2018: 70). A relational approach to ethics ‘emphasizes the necessity to engage with others’ and the importance to give the other ‘the opportunity to give meaning’. It also ‘recognizes power-asymmetry as an inherent feature of social research’ (Lauwers & Van Hove, 2010: 341). Given the importance they attach to respect and care as key characteristics in doing research with children, Lauwers & Van Hove (2010) promote the incorporation of a relational ethics approach from the outset of a research project. This approach is very much akin to our P4P project and the central position allocated to the Children and Young People Advisory Groups (CYPAG’s) in designing the methodology of the project.

In doingresearch, research ethics is an ‘ongoing process of questioning, acting and reflecting’, rather than a set of straightforward general rules of conduct (Powell et al., 2012: 9). This implies that the questions and dilemmas we raised at the outset of this contribution do not necessarily need to be answered. Ethics is about asking these questions, about constantly questioning our own perspectives and frames of references, being sensitized to the ethical dimensions of research and exploring and examining the dilemmas we are confronted with; it ‘is about helping researchers to become aware of hidden problems and questions in research, (…) though it does not provide simple answers’ (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004: 278; Alderson, 2005: 29; Powell et al., 2012: 10). This approach therefore questions to some degree the ‘utility of ethical guidelines’ for it is indeed ‘futile to believe that there could ever be one right thing to do’ (Horton, 2008: 368). Horton also argues, and we believe he is right in doing so, that the conception of ethical guidelines and rules as ‘neatly, rationally applied to a given situation’ is almost by definition at odds with the ambiguity, ‘hurly-burly’ and ‘forever imperfect realities’ of research practice (Horton, 2008: 369). Here, Horton refers to a notion of research ethics that acknowledges both research participants and researchers as ‘vulnerable, fallible, emotional, moody, embodied beings’ (Horton, 2008: 379). Research, and ours is by far an exception to that, indeed does not take place in a vacuum, nor does it follow the ideal and prescribed path.

A reflexive and relational ethics approach is in that sense indeed closer to ‘what really happens in the field during the research process’. In his book Postmodern Ethics, Zygmunt Bauman aptly argues that:

‘Human reality is messy and ambiguous – and so moral decisions, unlike abstract ethical principles, are ambivalent… The truth of the matter is that the ‘messiness’ will stay whatever we do or know, that the little orders and ‘systems’ we carve out in the world are … as arbitrary and in the end contingent as their alternatives’

(Bauman, 1993: 32-33; Lauwers & Van Hove, 2010: 352).








Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coyne, I. (2010). Research with children and young people: the issue of parental (proxy) consent. Children & Society, 24, 227-237.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2012). Guidance for Developing Ethical Research Projects Involving Children. Dublin: Irish Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Guillemin, M. & L. Gillam (2004), Ethics, reflexivity, and “ethically important moments” in research. Qualitative Inquiry, 10, 261–80.

Hemrica, J. & F. Heyting (2004). Tacit notions of childhood. An analysis of discourse about child participation in decision-making regarding arrangements in case of parental divorce. Childhood, 11(4), 449–468.

Herbots, K. & Put, J. (2015). The Participation Disc. A Concept Analysis of (a) Child(’s Right to) Participation. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 23(1), 154-188.

Horton, J. (2008). A ‘sense of failure’? Everydayness and research ethics. Children’s Geographies, 6(4), 363-383.

Kennan, D. (2015). Understanding the Ethical Requirement for Parental Consent When Engaging Youth in Research. In S. Bastien & H.B. Holmarsdottir (Eds.), Youth ‘At the Margins’: Critical Perspectives and Experiences of Engaging Youth in Research Worldwide (pp. 87-101). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Lauwers, H. & G. Van Hove (2010). Supporting the participation rights of children in a sensitive research project: the case of young road traffic victims. International Journal of Children’s Rights, 18, 335-354.

Lundy, L. & L. McEvoy (2012). Children’s rights and research processes: Assisting children to (in) formed views. Childhood, 19(1), 129-144.

Powell, M.A., R.M. Fitzgerald, N. Taylor & A. Graham (2012). International literature review: ethical issues in undertaking research with children and young people, for the Childwatch International Research Network, Southern Cross University, Centre for Children and Young People, Lismore NSW and University of Otago, Centre for Research on Children and Families, Dunedin, NZ.

Reid, A.-M.,  Brown, J.M., Smith, J.M., Cope, A.C & Jamieson, S. (2018), Ethical dilemmas and reflexivity in qualitative research. Perspectives on Medical Education, 7, 69-75.

Röbäck, K. & Höjer, I. (2009). Constructing Children’s Views in the Enforcement of Contact Order. International Journal of Children’s Rights,17(4), 663–680.

Singer, E. (2008). Ethical issues in surveys. In E. D. de Leeuw, J. J. Hox, & D. A. Dillman (Eds.), International handbook of survey methodology(pp. 78-96). New York/London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


[1]This research has been approved by the Ethics Committee in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast (UK) in May 2018.

 1 Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC), KU Leuven

2Children’s Rights Knowledge Centre (KeKi)

3UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre (UCFRC), NUI Galway

4Centre for Children’s Rights, QUB

A Dialogue Between Children’s Rights and Children’s Use of Social Media

This post is by project member, Sara Lambrechts – Researcher and Policy Advisor at the Children’s Rights Knowledge Centre (KeKi), Belgium. 

Children’s rights can enrich the debate about young people’s use of digital media. Both within research and within the family, we find a dominant practice of protecting children against online risks. This focus tends to overlook the need to encourage and enable children’s participation and the provision of adequate services. A rights-based discourse seeks to balance protection, provision and participation rights of children. As such, it can help us not only to ask new questions, but also to stimulate the development of new insights challenging the protection-paradigm. How could this work? We explore a few ideas.

 In the thematic analysis of the database of the Children’s Rights Knowledge Centre, which gathers Flemish research related to children’s rights since 2004, we found that research about digital media got a boost. Also, the amount of research on the crossroad of media and children’s rights has increased significantly. However, a closer look at the research projects suggests that researchers struggle with the question how they can adapt their methodology to the fast paced evolution of digital technologies. In particular, current research in Flanders seems to have a one-sided emphasis on the negative aspects of media, mostly focusing on protecting children against online risks. A literature study of international research on media and children’s rights shows similar results. Without denying the importance of protecting children in the digital media landscape, a need emerges for research and paradigms that start from a participatory view on what digital media means for children themselves.

The same holds true for children’s media use within the family. Parents, while often amazed at what children and young people can do on digital media, tend to equate the online world with a hotbed of risks and insecurity. Monitoring and protecting actions, including shielding children from screens, are not an uncommon response at home. Such measures, however, contain a risk in themselves. As research shows, unnecessary or extreme protection deprives children of development opportunities. In particular, an exclusive focus on protection overlooks important questions, for example whether risks are always a problem, why children may experience difficulties using digital media, how they can learn to become media-literate, and what kind of support they need to overcome vulnerability online.

Children’s rights can encourage a richer debate in research and practice. The strength of a children’s rights perspective is that it looks beyond the legal norms, translated into regulations and policy. Children’s rights also have an important social significance. They are linked to society’s views on how we look at children and young people, how we deal with them and how much space we give them. That is why children’s rights are a starting point for critical reflection.

Children’s rights are a combination of protection, provision and participation rights – the so-called 3 P’s. More specifically, using a children’s rights perspective always presupposes an exercise in balancing between these three P’s. Both in policy and in one’s own attitude as an adult, attention must be paid to each child’s vulnerability and strengths on the one hand and the role that the environment and the government must play to support children on the other. The context helps to determine how to find this balance.

This means a good balance between protection, provision and participation differs for every child and for every incident. In the online world, for example, while most children are able to deal healthily with online risks, there is also a vulnerable minority. These young people experience a greater sense of unease and may not know what actions they can take to tackle a problem, especially when faced with little self-confidence and insufficient knowledge or capacity to take control. Also, one online risk may differ to the next. When it comes to resilience building, young people experience more difficulties with cyber-bullying and privacy than with unwanted sexual or violent images. Especially when their reputation in the classroom or at school is at stake, it is more difficult to get out stronger after an incident.

Balancing the three P’s also shows that, just as an exclusive focus on risk does not offer magical solutions, so does an exclusive focus on digital skills. A high level of technical knowledge does not automatically form a buffer against negative feelings. Sufficient ‘button knowledge’ does not automatically mean being good at information skills. And not all children and young people with few digital skills are vulnerable. Most of them tend to compensate for their lack of technical knowledge by staying away from a website or app. They solve their limitation by addressing someone who can help.

In particular, critical thinking, analysis and evaluation of media content are essential skills to avoid online risks. It is precisely these things that vulnerable children have more difficulty with. However, a supportive environment can play a decisive role in building resilience and increasing online participation. Children and adolescents who have a good relationship with parents, teachers, friends, social workers and others around them take the step of talking more quickly about an unpleasant experience. Supported by their environment, they are more willing to take action, so the problem does not escalate.

The right media education style does not exist, as much depends on the age of the child or young person, the media competences, the purpose of media use and the device. Nevertheless, as a parent, teacher or educator, you can create a framework in which children and young people feel safe and supported. Discover and enjoy digital media together, help the child or the young person search, talk about what they see and do, remember that children and young people imitate adults, repetition remains fun, search for positive content, make clear agreements: what, where, for how long… A platform such as MediaNest, a Flemish media education website that informs and raises awareness about media themes, responds to this. It enables conversations between adults, children and young people to talk about digital media, both about opportunities and about risks.

We should not forget most children and young people are doing well online. They often combine relaxation and fun with more creative activities. Without denying the fact that paying attention to risks and insecurity is important, striking a balance towards more attention to and recognition of this positive image is welcome. Also, if children and young people are supported, protected and enabled to become sufficiently resilient and build up sufficient self-confidence, skills and possibilities to deal with unpleasant experiences, they will likely be less inconvenienced by online risks. In order to develop resilience in an online environment, children and young people need to be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. An incident can then become a meaningful experience.

More information (in Dutch) can be found here.

With special thanks to Katrien Herbots, Elke Boudry, Marjon Schols, Sofie Vandoninck, Hadewijch Vanwynsberghe & Eveline Van Hooijdonck for their contributions.