Parent Engagement Project

about the project

The ethics of recruiting, retaining and tracing research participants online

The ability to effectively engage participants remains one of the greatest challenges to parenting, family and child development research, and the greatest threat to project completion, budget and deliverables. These challenges are heightened when the research design is complex, data collection occurs over long time periods, or when the research targets ‘hard-to-reach’ populations.

Traditional approaches to the recruitment and retention of families for both intervention and observational research (e.g., face to face recruitment, telephone calls, mail-outs) are expensive, labour intensive and increasingly ineffective in the face of contemporary mobile populations and changing communication patterns. Modern technologies, and social media in particular, offer an opportunity to search for and make contact with people on a large (and potentially global) scale in a relatively cost effective manner.

While researchers increasingly use online technologies in their research toolkits, concern remains about the implication of this for privacy, confidentiality and informed consent. Ultimately the decision about the appropriateness of using online technologies to recruit, retain and trace participants is the responsibility of the human research ethics committees (HREC), who are charged with ensuring ethical conduct, however current ethical guidelines in Australia provide little or no guidance on this. It therefore remains unclear as to how decisions about ethical appropriateness of online technology use are being made and whether they are being made consistently across HRECs.

This study investigated the ethics of using the internet to recruit, retain and trace parents and families as research participants. This was a three-phase project that included:

  1. Review of academic and grey literature;
  2. Interviews with researchers and members of Australian HRECs; and
  3. Online survey of researchers and HREC members.

The research aimed to answer the following research questions:

  1. What online strategies are currently being used to recruit, retain and trace participants in research?
  2. What concerns do researchers and HREC members have about using the internet to recruit, retain and trace research participants?
  3. What information do researchers and HREC members use to guide their decisions about the ethical appropriateness of using the internet in research?


Findings from each phase of this project have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Key findings have also been prepared as a Research Summary [PDF, 228 KB]. Study findings are directly informing strategies for use in three current parenting projects conducted by the Transition to Contemporary Parenthood Program in the Judith Lumley Centre.


Phase 1: Review of academic and grey literature

  • Hokke S, Hackworth NJ, Quin N, Bennetts SK, Win HY, Nicholson JM, Zion L, Lucke J, Keyzer P, Crawford SB (2018). Ethical issues in using the internet to engage participants in family and child research: A scoping review. PLOS ONE, 13(9): e0204572.

Phase 2: Interviews with researchers and members of Australian HRECs

  • Crawford S, Hokke S, Nicholson JM, Zion L, Lucke J, Keyzer P & Hackworth NJ (2019). “It’s not black and white”:  Public health researchers’ and ethics committees’ perceptions of engaging research participants online. Internet Research, 29(1):123-43.

Phase 3: Online survey of researchers and HREC members

  • Hokke S, Hackworth NJ, Bennetts SK, Nicholson JM, Keyzer P, Lucke J, Zion L, Crawford S. Ethical considerations in using social media to engage research participants: Perspectives of Australian researchers and Ethics Committee members. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. Epub: 2019, June 14.

research team

La Trobe University

  • Dr Sharinne Crawford (Principle Investigator), Judith Lumley Centre
  • Professor Jan Nicholson, Judith Lumley Centre
  • Professor Jayne Lucke, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society
  • Professor Patrick Keyzer, La Trobe Law School
  • Professor Lawrie Zion, Department of Communication & Media
  • Ms Shannon Bennetts, Judith Lumley Centre
  • Dr Stacey Hokke, Judith Lumley Centre

Parenting Research Centre

  • Dr Naomi Hackworth


  • Transforming Human Societies Research Focus Area, Scheme 1, 2015, La Trobe University
  • Research funding from La Trobe and Research Services at La Trobe University


Dr Sharinne Crawford

Dr Stacey Hokke