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?


Data collection and analysis for this project are now complete, and dissemination activities are currently underway. Key findings from this study have been prepared as a Research Summary [PDF, 228 KB].

Findings from Phase 1 were recently published in PLOS ONE.

  • 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.

Findings from Phase 2 have recently been accepted for publication in the journal Internet Research. This manuscript will be available in late 2018.

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

A publication from Phase 3 is in preparation. Study findings are also directly informing strategies for use in two current parenting projects conducted by the Transition to Contemporary Parenthood Program in the Judith Lumley Centre.

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, College of Science, Health & Engineering, La Trobe University
  • Research Services, La Trobe University


Dr Sharinne Crawford

Dr Stacey Hokke