Who is watching? Thinking ethically about observing children

Just how much of a child’s life is private? Who has the right to monitor? What judgements are being formed; and what decisions are being made on their behalf?

Every day, educators observe, record conversations and capture images of children for analysis and reflection, to guide their curriculum decisions and inform their understanding. While every step is taken to ensure children’s confidentiality and privacy, how often is the perspective of the child considered? This article outlines the ethical tensions that arise for early childhood education and care settings, as they manage recording observations of children with multiple requests from students, researchers and visitors to engage with and observe children.

PRIVACY

Have you ever found yourself in the change room of a large department store and read a notice stating that hidden cameras are being used to monitor your behaviour? The wording implies that even in the change room you are being watched. Although you are not a dishonest person and wouldn’t have the slightest intention of shoplifting, you probably became acutely uncomfortable that someone, somewhere, was watching. Paranoid? Yes, most likely, but perhaps with good reason. We all want to protect our privacy.

Within Australia, the Privacy Act 1988 (Commonwealth of Australia, 1988, amended 2004) specifically details the rights of individuals to privacy, and prohibits a range of intrusions into personal lives. The Act allows you to:

… know why your personal information is being collected and how it will be used and disclosed ask for access to your records correct inaccurate information about you ensure your information is only used for purposes you have been told about.

For children, these rights are the responsibility of the legal guardian. Upon enrolment in education and care settings, settings seek a guardian’s informed, written consent in relation to the use of photographs and images of their child, including the information that can and cannot be disclosed to others, such as students, researchers and visitors. But what constitutes informed consent from the child’s perspective?

A MATTER OF RIGHTS

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1998 stipulates that all activities that affect children’s lives should build on seeing children as fellow human beings and as active citizens. It promotes the idea that children be involved, informed, consulted and heard; and that their rights, feelings and interests be given as much consideration as those of adults.If we reflect on this understanding, then surely we owe it to the child to seek their permission before information about them or images of them are recorded. Just like adults, children have the right to understand the nature of the observation or study; what is going to happen, what will be expected of them and what will happen to the information and the way it will be used. They have the right to protect their own privacy and to choose when, how and where they will participate.

TELLING CHILDREN ABOUT THEIR RIGHTS

Children need to be informed in such a way that they understand their own right to decide whether they wish to take part. The active consideration of children as fellow human beings, and a continual sensitivity to their emotions, interests and considerations, protects their anonymity and confidentiality and reciprocates the trust they have in the adults who care for them.All educators need to be vigilant in their protection and respect of children’s privacy. Seeking children’s informed consent, or agreement to participate, should be embedded in their everyday practice. It should not only apply to formal requests from external bodies, students and other visitors; but also to the daily documentation and investigations undertaken by educators of children’s learning and development.

How often do we grab a camera and snap off shots to assist in documentation? Is the educator’s presence changing the context of the child’s experience? Does the thought of being monitored make the child aware of their behaviour? Once an educator, student or visitor to a service takes an image or captures information about a child, they seek to record and interpret it in a meaningful way. The process of doing this automatically sees the educator making judgements based on personal preferences, morals and values. But where is the child in this process?Consider the following protocols and obligations:

  • Remembering to ask a child if it is OK to take a photograph.
  • Supporting children to understand their own right to decide whether they wish to take part.
  • Attuning to children’s body language and unique communication styles as cues about their preferred involvement.
  • Using symbols, such as smiley faces, when asking children to indicate their preferred involvement.
  • Taking account of matters such as safety, fatigue, feelings of inclusion and exclusion, interest and social and cultural contexts, beliefs and values.
  • Informing children about the purpose of the research, visit or observation.
  • Checking with children before significant conversation or extracts from interviews are quoted.
  • Consulting with children to plan ways they can be involved in recording observations or research projects.
  • Engaging children not only in the generation of information, but also in the analysis and interpretation of information to include their perspective and contribute to its authenticity.
  • Ensuring images and personal information collected is necessary, non-intrusive, maintained securely, and used only for the purposes intended, including safeguarding digital images from access by others.
  • Ensuring observation does not contribute to increased surveillance or monitoring of children.
  • Considering the different reactions children may have to representations of themselves as they mature.

Sharon Mehan
C&K Sustainability Advisor

Lynne Moore
C&K Curriculum Coordinator

Resources

Christensen, P., & Prout, A. (2002). Working with ethical symmetry in social research with children. Childhood, 9(4): pp. 477–497.
Dockett, S., Einarsdottir J., & Perry, B. (2009). Researching with children: Ethical tensions. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 7: pp. 283–298.
Dockett, S., & Perry, B. (2007). Trusting children’s accounts in research. Journal of Early Childhood Research 5: pp. 47–63.
Early Childhood Australia (ECA) (2010). Code of ethics. Canberra, ACT: ECA.