Research Topic

The Ethics of Conducting Health-Related Online Psychological Research

About this Research Topic

Digital technology changes exponentially fast. As it does so, our lives are becoming more and more entwined with the digital world. This technology can be helpful for our health; for example, we can seek information from health-related websites; we can seek support from online communities like Facebook and Twitter; and we can construct representations of our illness through sharing images on Instagram or Twitter. But it can also be unhelpful, for example by normalizing abnormal experiences and encouraging us to engage in unhealthy behavior. All of this technology is available at our finger tips if we have access to the internet and a device capable of connecting to the wifi.

Psychologists are interested in understanding the impact of this fast paced, changing, shape-shifting entity. However, long gone are the days when psychologists could make participants think they were delivering fatal electric shocks, turn students into prisoners or prison officers and simply watch what happened, or make 9-month old babies afraid of rats (Milgram, Zimbardo and Watson respectively). Although we learned a lot from these experiments, our professional body (quite rightly) introduced clear ethical standards which we must attend to in all the research we design.

At its simplest, the essence of research ethical guidelines is to ‘do no harm’. This seems to be a clear and sensible rule of thumb and it is tempting to think of ethics as a set of rules we apply: If ‘x’ happens, then we do ‘y’. However, even though the ethical issues (e.g. do no harm, consent, deception etc.) are the same for face-to-face and online worlds, the digital world is evolving so quickly that researchers face new and often complex research scenarios and new challenges in applying these ethical considerations to digital contexts.

For example, the Internet provides us with means of sourcing and querying health information. It also allows us to self-diagnose, seek and offer support and connect with others from all over the world. How do psychologists research this field whilst maintaining the highest ethical standards? How can psychologists research this field, when the things we set out to research may have developed so much that they are unrecognizable at the end of the study? How can psychologists research a field where everything is connected? The phrase ‘Do no harm’ is easy to say but difficult to apply when one works in these evolving online health settings. It is these new challenges and more importantly how researchers have responded to them that we are interested in.

The objective of this Research Topic is to invite researchers to think more deeply about the issues facing psychologists conducting online research in the health field, and to provide a venue for the exploration of potential solutions to the fast-changing problems they face. We welcome submissions of relevant material for this Research Topic. We seek a variety of work illustrating challenges and innovative solutions. Suggested topics that could be addressed by papers are:

• Methodological: examining methodological approaches to online research and their related ethical challenges, for example, mixed methods, Big Data, multi-authored online content, text, video, and image data;
• Reflexive: presenting accounts of ethical challenges resulting from research engagement with the online world;
• Pedagogical: presenting challenges for those who teach research methods;
• Other topics: as proposed by submitting authors.


Keywords: Ethics, internet, social media, psychology research, big data, health


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Digital technology changes exponentially fast. As it does so, our lives are becoming more and more entwined with the digital world. This technology can be helpful for our health; for example, we can seek information from health-related websites; we can seek support from online communities like Facebook and Twitter; and we can construct representations of our illness through sharing images on Instagram or Twitter. But it can also be unhelpful, for example by normalizing abnormal experiences and encouraging us to engage in unhealthy behavior. All of this technology is available at our finger tips if we have access to the internet and a device capable of connecting to the wifi.

Psychologists are interested in understanding the impact of this fast paced, changing, shape-shifting entity. However, long gone are the days when psychologists could make participants think they were delivering fatal electric shocks, turn students into prisoners or prison officers and simply watch what happened, or make 9-month old babies afraid of rats (Milgram, Zimbardo and Watson respectively). Although we learned a lot from these experiments, our professional body (quite rightly) introduced clear ethical standards which we must attend to in all the research we design.

At its simplest, the essence of research ethical guidelines is to ‘do no harm’. This seems to be a clear and sensible rule of thumb and it is tempting to think of ethics as a set of rules we apply: If ‘x’ happens, then we do ‘y’. However, even though the ethical issues (e.g. do no harm, consent, deception etc.) are the same for face-to-face and online worlds, the digital world is evolving so quickly that researchers face new and often complex research scenarios and new challenges in applying these ethical considerations to digital contexts.

For example, the Internet provides us with means of sourcing and querying health information. It also allows us to self-diagnose, seek and offer support and connect with others from all over the world. How do psychologists research this field whilst maintaining the highest ethical standards? How can psychologists research this field, when the things we set out to research may have developed so much that they are unrecognizable at the end of the study? How can psychologists research a field where everything is connected? The phrase ‘Do no harm’ is easy to say but difficult to apply when one works in these evolving online health settings. It is these new challenges and more importantly how researchers have responded to them that we are interested in.

The objective of this Research Topic is to invite researchers to think more deeply about the issues facing psychologists conducting online research in the health field, and to provide a venue for the exploration of potential solutions to the fast-changing problems they face. We welcome submissions of relevant material for this Research Topic. We seek a variety of work illustrating challenges and innovative solutions. Suggested topics that could be addressed by papers are:

• Methodological: examining methodological approaches to online research and their related ethical challenges, for example, mixed methods, Big Data, multi-authored online content, text, video, and image data;
• Reflexive: presenting accounts of ethical challenges resulting from research engagement with the online world;
• Pedagogical: presenting challenges for those who teach research methods;
• Other topics: as proposed by submitting authors.


Keywords: Ethics, internet, social media, psychology research, big data, health


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

31 January 2018 Abstract
08 June 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

31 January 2018 Abstract
08 June 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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