Scholars call for new ethical guidelines to direct research on social networking

The unique data collection capabilities of social networking and online gaming websites require new ethical guidance from federal regulators concerning online research involving adolescent subjects, an ethics scholar from the Morgridge Institute for Research and a computer and learning sciences expert from Tufts University argue .

Increasingly, academics are designing and implementing research interventions on social network sites such as Facebook to learn how these interventions may affect user behavior, knowledge, attitudes and psychological health. Online games are being used as research interventions. However, the ability to mine user data (including information about Facebook "friends"), sensitive personal information and behavior raises concerns that deserve closer ethical scrutiny, say Pilar Ossorio and R. Benjamin Shapiro.

Ossorio is a bioethics scholar-in-residence at the Morgridge Institute, a private, nonprofit biomedical research institute on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. She also holds joint appointments as a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School and the School of Medicine and Public Health. Shapiro is an assistant professor in computer science and education at Tufts, where he is a member of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. He previously held appointments in educational research at Morgridge and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

"Given the unprecedented ability of online research using social network sites to identify sensitive personal information concerning the research subject and the subject’s online acquaintances, researchers need clarification concerning applicable ethical and regulatory standards," Ossorio says. "Regulators need greater insights into the possible benefits and harms of online social network research, and researchers need to better understand the relevant ethical and regulatory universe so they can design technical strategies for minimizing harm and complying with legal requirements."

For instance, Ossorio says, researchers may be able to design game features that detect player distress and respond by modifying the game environment, and marry those features to data collection technologies that maximally protect users’ privacy while still offering useful data to researchers.

“Regulators need greater insights into the possible benefits and harms of online social network research, and researchers need to better understand the relevant ethical and regulatory universe.”

Pilar Ossorio

Consent for online research is tricky, particularly when it involves minors. Under Shapiro and Ossorio’s analysis, current law does not require that researchers obtain parental permission to conduct studies of adolescents on social networking sites. Parental permission is required for younger children, while adolescents and adults provide their own consent. Of course, parents can prohibit their adolescents from any online activity, including research participation, regardless of legal limits on researchers. Parents have the same amount of control over their adolescents’ online research participation as they do over any other online activity in which their teens engage.

"Researchers should use the online environment to deliver innovative, informative consent processes that help participants understand the dimensions of the research and the accompanying data collection," Shapiro says. "This is especially important given the general public’s ignorance about the ability to collect massive amounts of personal data over the Internet."

If traditional approaches to consent are of limited value for protecting online subjects, Ossorio says, then researchers and regulators should emphasize other aspects of research ethics, such as using all reasonable approaches to minimize research risks. Also, researchers should seek innovative methods for generating transparency around the research enterprise.

Writing in the Policy Forum section of the Jan. 11 edition of Science, Shapiro and Ossorio conclude by emphasizing that the richness of online information should not become the sole domain of commercial marketing interests but should be used to advance understanding of human behavior and inspire positive social outcomes. Elucidating ethical and legal guidelines for design research on social media will create new opportunities for researchers to understand and improve society.