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Research Ethics:
Collecting Data About Bullying

FAQs: Collecting Data about Bullying

*Most of the guidance in this document can also be applied to studies about other activities that are potentially illegal (use of illegal drugs) or would obligate referral (e.g., depression, suicidality).

What ethical challenges are typically encountered by researchers studying bullying*?

  • The data collection cannot be approved unless the study offers something new and significant to the field. An exhaustive literature review is absolutely essential before proposing sensitive data collection. To receive ethics approval, a study about bullying experiences/perceptions must show potential for addressing a meaningful gap in the research literature (or a gap in practice for the professional doctorate programs such as Ed.D.). To be ethically justifiable, the risks would need to be offset by significant benefits.
  • Some researchers propose sensitive data collection that is too broad in scope. A researcher may not collect more data than is absolutely necessary to answer the articulated research questions for the current study.
  • Researchers must make themselves aware of relevant state laws. Depending on the state, bullying can be a punishable misdemeanor or even a felony in some cases. More and more states are now addressing cyberbullying in their legislation.
  • Participants must be informed of the legal risks upfront during the informed consent process. They must be made aware of the potential consequences of “self-incriminating” disclosures.
  • The only way for a researcher to offer confidentiality (i.e., promise to not report a participant’s admissions to bullying or other illegal behavior) would be to obtain a certificate of confidentiality from the US National Institutes of Health, which protects data from subpoena. This certificate can take several months to obtain.
  • The researcher must comply with the bullying/violence policies of the research site (e.g., school, campus). If the site has a zero tolerance policy, then the researcher is obligated to report all possible policy violations, unless a written waiver is obtained from the site (note that a waiver is not typically available). However, a site’s waiver does not protect data from subpoena by authorities (an NIH certificate of confidentiality would also be necessary to protect data from subpoena).
  • The researcher needs to articulate a defensible plan that will determine whether/when to break confidentiality for safety/wellbeing reasons (meeting the reporting requirements of the school/state/IRB while not unnecessarily breaking confidentiality in a manner that undermines the validity of the data and the trust relationship between the researcher and participant.) The researcher must anticipate and plan for all possible scenarios including:  What if the participant is the victim but asks the researcher to not report the matter to authorities? What if a prosecutable offense has been committed but the student will not name the perpetrator out of fear of retaliation?  To what degree does a participant (who may be a minor) have the right to “not press charges” in these situations? To what degree can/should a minor’s data be witheld from the minor’s parents?
  • The researcher will need to enclose with the parent consent and student assent forms a short referral list of local, free/low-cost counseling services in case issues arise before, during, or after the study and the student does not want to talk to the school counselor. The researcher should add a note at the top along these lines: This referral list is provided as a general service to help make participants and parents aware of community resources outside the school that are available to provide counseling in regard to bullying or any other challenge.
  • The researcher will need to add (to the parent consent and student assent forms) a brief reminder of the research site’s bullying policy and the specific procedures for reporting bullying (particularly if the site has an anonymous reporting procedure). This should include a framing statement such as the following: The survey/interview questions will not ask the students to report specific incidents of bullying or mention the bullies by name.  However, I do want to provide a reminder of the school’s bullying reporting policy and procedures…
  • To study bullying, the most practical, ethical approach for graduate students is to perform a secondary analysis on data that is already being collected primarily for other, non-research purposes, such as:
    • assessments on curriculum related to character education, interpersonal problem-solving, etc.
    • de-identified school data on bullying incidents
    • schoolwide bullying report surveys that are initiated and conducted by the school as a needs assessment and/or program evaluation (as opposed to being initiated by a graduate student primarily for research purposes).


What ethical challenges would I encounter if I conduct interviews about bullying?

A bullying study with an interview format presents the following ethical challenges:

  • The researcher must obtain the interviewing experience/skills to appropriately redirect the participant when the topic wanders outside of the approved interview content. This requires roleplaying with an experienced qualitative research interviewer.
  • The researcher must design a plan for responding appropriately to distress (without crossing over into a counseling role).
  • The researcher must conduct the interviews in a discreet, neutral location off the school campus that will not make the victim a further target. The researcher may not use a room at the school because other students may view the participants entering or leaving the room, deduce that the participants are in the study, believe (either correctly or incorrectly) that the interviewee told the researcher about bullying events, and then perhaps intimidate the interviewee or retaliate against the interviewee. Phone or video chat format seems to work well. Conducting an interview in the participant’s home is only approvable if
    1. a parent is present,
    2. a neutral, private location is also offered as an alternative, and
    3. the researcher’s presence would not expose the participant or family to any risks,
    4. sufficient provisions are made to ensure privacy during the interview, and
    5. sufficient provisions are made to ensure that the researcher is not imposing on the family by letting the interview run long, staying beyond his welcome, etc. (i.e., building frequent check-ins into the interview guide and/or using a timer.
  • The researcher needs to have the skillset and an articulated plan to make appropriate referrals rather than becoming personally involved in the student’s bullying situation or giving advice to the interviewee.
  • The researcher may not interview his or her own students/clients or anyone with whom the researcher has an ongoing relationship.  
  • With interviews, the researcher needs to take measures to ensure that students don’t misunderstand the purpose of the interview and start telling stories about specific bullying incidents, which would be traumatizing for them (especially the aftermath of worrying about whether the bullies can/will possibly retaliate). Further, asking the students for emotionally-loaded details about bullying incidents typically would not help address the research questions (and are therefore not ethically justified). There are two ways the researcher can mitigate these risks:


  1. The researcher can draft a script (to precede the interview) that will clearly explain to the student that the purpose of the interview is to learn about the school in general and that the researcher cannot talk with them about specific bullies or specific bullying events. The researcher should let them know (gently of course) that if the interviewee starts to name names or talk about a specific bullying story, that it’s the researcher’s job to stop them and remind them to stay on track. (The researcher can frame this in several possible ways: “It’s my job to get the facts without getting involved” or “It’s my responsibility to protect everyone’s identity” or “I’m going to need to play a timekeeper role, so please don’t take it personally if I stop you in order to keep us on track.”
  2. The researcher should check that the wording of the interview questions is not likely to tempt students to start “telling bullying stories."


What ethical challenges would I encounter if I conduct surveys about bullying?

  • A researcher needs to be able to provide support for the participant even though the researcher may not be able to respond immediately to extreme distress (possibly creating a situation in which the participant is without support while depressed and perhaps even suicidal). This is particularly true for online surveys in which the participant completes the survey in isolation.
  • Offering anonymous participation is a significant advantage of survey format over interview format. However, the drawback is that it makes follow-up impossible. Thus, the researcher needs to articulate a plan for how s/he will manage the dynamic in which follow-up on serious bullying is not possible. (Many researchers argue that providing “immunity” from punishment is the only way that respondents will  be honest about their own bullying behaviors—but this is only defensible when the researcher is not a mandated reporter and has built a solid enough research design that the benefits outweigh the risks). Note that not all schools are comfortable with anonymous data collection on sensitive topics, particularly if it conflicts with a zero-tolerance policy.
  • Anonymous student participation does not preclude written parent consent. It is acceptable to distribute the assent forms and surveys only to those students who have returned parent consent forms. However, the student assent form would not include a signature line (if anonymous participation is being offered). Instead the assent form would state something like, “To protect your privacy, you are not asked to provide your name or signature anywhere on the survey. Instead, your return of the completed survey will serve as your sign that you agree to volunteer. If you do not wish to volunteer, then you may return a blank survey.”
  • If you decide to do anonymous data collection, it is incredibly important to remind the participant of this fact at the top of the sensitive surveys (particularly with young people so they do not mistakenly perceive that “no one cared” about their responses).

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