tr?id=304425946719474&ev=PageView&noscript=1 Facebook and Online Research Ethics

A call for “new rules” for Internet-based research


     Over the last decade many researchers have devoted their time and effort to examining how Facebook is being used educationally. The logic of this examination stems from the fact that approximately 90% of students in the United States are using a social networking website (Junco 2012; Fogel & Nehmad, 2009), and that the primary social networking website used is Facebook (Junco 2012). In short, this group understands that bringing educational material to students via a medium they visit several times a day will likely lead to enhanced learning.

     In an earlier post the highest quality research articles related to Facebook were described. This was done in order to provide a complete overview of how Facebook is used by teachers to enhance instruction and engage in self-driven professional development. The paper also described students’ attitudes toward educational Facebook use, which was positive overall, and made recommendations for appropriate educational Facebook etiquette (for both teachers and students). Another aspect of educational Facebook use that was touched upon, but not discussed extensively, was educational Facebook research ethics. The literature review referenced two articles in particular that “covertly” observed students’ Facebook timelines (i.e., profiles containing general student information and a chronological record of Facebook interactions). Upon review of the two articles in question it became clear that a deeper examination is necessary. In order to fulfill this need the two potentially ethically controversial educational Facebook use articles will be analyzed using scholarly literature regarding online research ethics. Ultimately, it will be identified whether the two studies can be deemed ethical or unethical. Recommendations for conducting ethical educational Facebook research will also be made.


     The first of the two possibly ethically controversial studies by Hart and Steinbrecher (2011) was designed to identify how pre-service teachers use Facebook. In order to ascertain this information the researchers conducted a search, via Facebook, for students with public Facebook timelines (i.e., the individual’s account was set so that anyone, with or without a Facebook account, could view the timeline) who attended the university where this research was conducted. The study revealed that the pre-service teachers used Facebook in order to collaborate during student teaching. This collaboration included discussions about lessons (both used and theoretical) and for the sharing of student teaching experiences that were potentially useful to peers. The findings also indicated that 50% of the participants (54 individuals) had timelines that showed their owners using alcohol in excess. Seventeen percent of the observed timelines contained one or more sexually suggestive photos and 10% of the timelines contained photos in which students were tagged (i.e., the student name and Facebook timeline was associated with the photo). If these findings represent pre-service teachers’ habits, than it is a stark reminder for the need to teach and reinforce appropriate educational Facebook use to new teachers.

The second possibly controversial study was designed by Selwyn (2009) who observed 909 university students in a manner similar to Hart and Steinbrecher’s study. Selwyn’s study sought to identify the ways that students use Facebook as an educational tool on a daily basis. The main difference between the ways the researchers conducted the observations is that Selwyn opened a Facebook account and observed student timelines as a Facebook user himself. Selwyn’s study revealed that (aside from socializing) students generally used Facebook to discuss university life (e.g., exchanging useful information such as library hours of operation etc.) and to seek out moral support. Institution review board processes were not described, which might have been helpful in understanding how ethics-related decisions were made.

     The next logical step in the process of determining the ethical nature of the Hart and Steinbrecher and Selwyn studies is to examine relevant articles regarding appropriate online research and to apply that research to the studies in question.

Privacy in Public Places

     The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) has had an ethical guidelines manual available for the past ten years and these guidelines can be used to help identify whether research is ethical or not. One main point made by AoIR is that even though individuals and groups may be communicating on a public webpage like a public Facebook timeline, spaces like this are more often than not perceived as being private ones. While some argue it is the responsibility of the user to be informed about internet privacy laws, AoIR guidelines suggest that the researcher is ethically obligated to respect the perceived privacy of technically public groups. Waskul (1996) likens covert observations of public websites to recording a conversation happening between two individuals in a public park. The theoretical two are in public, but does this make it acceptable to record their interactions? Waskul suggests not. Selwyn acknowledges the possibility of misperceived privacy in his article and also notes that only 82 of the 909 public student timelines observed were intentionally  made public. The remaining may have been public by default and never modified. The ethical obligation seems to have been recognized by Selwyn, but is not sufficiently addressed.

Institution review boards and privacy

Ideally, researchers would be able to rely on institution review boards to determine whether or not a proposed online research study is ethical, making the discussion moot. Unfortunately, review boards have not had enough experience with this type of research and are not equipped to do so (Parry, 2011; King, 1996). Until review boards become familiar with online research, researchers will need to continue to decide what is required to ensure privacy of participants. Hart and Steinbrecher and Selwyn note that measures were taken to ensure such privacy for their participants. However, it has been pointed out that highly detailed published data (e.g., direct quotes) can lead to recognition of an individual (Parry, 2011). It is also pointed out that no matter how well-protected a researcher deems a participant’s identity to be, there are often incalculable variables that may also lead to such recognition (Parry, 2011).

Informed Consent

     Madge (2007) supports the need for the continued evolution of guidelines like AiOR’s, as well as Waskul’s stance. She clearly states that any individual serving as a research participant must know that they are one, and should provide informed consent. Furthermore, Madge points out the fact that research conducted in Europe cannot progress in the absence of informed consent, as it is illegal to do so. Research results from a study by Chen et al. (2004) revealed that owners of public webpages generally found observing without consent an unethical research practice. A compromise between the need to observe individuals covertly and to obtain upfront informed consent is suggested by Madge. She suggests conducting the observations without the knowledge of participants, informing individuals about the project afterward, and then requesting informed consent. The idea is to contact each participant (via email, etc.) and explain what was done, why it was done, and why it was done covertly. Neither Selwyn nor Hart and Steinbrecher’s studies appear to have conducted a follow-up like this. Sharf’s (1999) study is an example of research successfully completed in this in this way. Once the reasoning and potential benefits of Sharf’s project were explained, participants provided informed consent after the fact and also contributed useful feedback via interviews. Sharf ultimately concludes that the additional work to ensure the research was ethically conducted benefitted the participants as well as the online research community as a whole. The results of Sharf’s study were also made available to participants as in this particular case the research was directly applicable to the participants observed. However, many researchers may not be willing to take the risk that participants will deny consent.

Direct quoting

King (1996) explains that the least acceptable way for an unaware participant to find out they were in fact a part of a research project is to read the published article and recognize telling material (e.g., direct quotes, research locations, etc.). While many may think this is unlikely to occur, King states that the possibility cannot be ignored. For this reason, King explains that direct quoting should not be used if a researcher chooses not to obtain informed consents. Neither Hart and Steinbrecher’s nor Selwyn’s studies conform to this rule.   

Website registration

Haight and Jones (2005) suggest that if website registration is needed in order obtain data and make observations then informed consent should be required. Bruckman (2002) also supports this notion. It’s also explained that recording data from websites that require registration commonly violates that website’s Terms of Agreement/Use clause.


     There are many variables to consider when attempting to decide where studies like Hart and Steinbrecher’s and Sewlyn’s stand, ethically speaking (the researchers themselves acknowledged that their studies may be ethically controversial). If these studies were to be measured against the combined recommendations for ethical online research referenced here, they might fall short of acceptable ethical conduct. However, the guidelines described have not been accepted by researchers as a collective group, nor are there any official online research guidelines by which researchers are required to abide. Because of this, a generalizable ethical measurement of Hart and Steinbrecher’s and Sewlyn’s studies cannot be made. Researchers appear to be left to their own experience and judgment to determine what is ethical and what is not. Sharf’s research procedures seem to be an ideal example for future researchers to follow. Researchers that wish to ensure ethical online research would also be wise to familiarize themselves with the guidelines and examples referenced here, and to use their judgment to abide by those that are ethically applicable, as Sharf did.