The benefits of promoting meaningful participation of young people in issues that are relevant to them have been identified. Oliver, Collin, Burns and Nicholas (2006) carried out an evaluation of the participation of young people in a youth advisory board to improve mental health services. The study found that participation had many benefits for young people, including resilience building, increasing control, connectedness, communication skills, confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy and acted as a protective factor for mental health problems. Other studies have shown that participation of young people can increase their civic engagement by giving them a voice in public affairs, policy making and connection within their community (Finn and Checkoway, 1998; Frank, 2006; Horgan, 2017). Young people can enhance research by providing reliable knowledge informed by their perspectives and experiences and can, in turn, also benefit from research that understands their lives (Kennan and Dolan, 2017). This provides an opportunity for both adults and young people to learn from each other (Lundy, McEvoy and Byrne, 2011). Integrating the views of youth in research allows findings to be aligned with the priorities and experiences of young people and improves the impact and success of policies and programmes (Liebenberg, 2017). “Participatory dissemination” (Liebenberg, Ikeda and Jamal, n.d., p.1) with young people can bring “volume to their voices” and attract the attention of those who have the power and ability to improve their lives.
This article is based on a secondary data analysis of the impact of mentoring relationships on adolescent empathy (Rodriguez, Dolan and Brady, 2018). Data for this analysis originated from the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) evaluation study which was undertaken by the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway (Dolan et al., 2011). The evaluation consisted of a randomised control trial (n=164) and nine longitudinal qualitative case studies of mentoring pairs, including the experiences of young people, mentors, mothers and case workers taking part in the Big Brothers Big Sisters programme.
To disseminate the findings from this secondary analysis, young people who were involved in the BBBS programme at the time of the current study were invited to take part in an advisory group to explore their views on the relevance of these new findings and to determine if these findings were relevant to their current experience in the programme. The lead researchers, a professional video producer and two case workers were present at the time of the advisory group meeting. These young people were then asked to share their own experiences in the programme by creating a video to spread the messages of the research to other young people, stakeholders and the public. This process is described in more detail in the methodology section below. Video was selected as the medium for dissemination because it can be shared widely. In a participatory dissemination approach, young people can be involved in the selection of the dissemination method, and may select from other media such as creative writing and art (Liebenberg et al. n.d.).
The dissemination process consisted of three phases. Firstly, contact was made with the BBBS programme in the West of Ireland to explain the research and invite them as gatekeepers for young people. This organisation purposefully selected young people according to their personalities to maximise their potential interest in the video. All parents and young people were provided with information sheets and consent forms before participating.
Secondly, the young people took part in a youth advisory group to increase engagement (Leitch and Mitchell, 2014). For two hours the young people were introduced to the research and the findings and were then asked to reflect upon these and to identify any times in their lives where a similar situation had happened to them. The lead researcher explained the research and findings in five slides using age-appropriate language, confirmed with the young people that they understood the ideas, and ensured the young people had adequate opportunity to comment or ask questions. The young people were then given blank story scripts and were divided into small groups to brainstorm their lived experiences or creative ideas in relation to the research and findings. These were then discussed as a group and the young people selected the most relevant ones for the story line. The professional video producer created a script based on the young people’s themes and suggestions.
The third stage consisted of a full day of filming. The young people were given scripts and they were asked to read them to ensure the language was suitable for a young person; they could make any changes they felt were needed. Following this, the young people were assigned a character, and scenes were filmed in the different locations to fit the storyline. The young people had an active role in selecting the locations of the film, as there were different options available near the location of the BBBS programme headquarters, however, it was decided to stay within the area to guarantee the safety of the young people, and to reassure parents of the whereabouts and safety of their children. The lessons learned from this experience are explored in detail in the following section.
Lessons from the field
This section describes some lessons learned in the process of meaningful participation and dissemination of the results of this secondary data analysis. This includes ethical and practical considerations to safeguard the integrity of these young people, and, in this innovative research experience, of involving a different cohort of young people to disseminate the findings of a study that they were not initially part of. It was also very important to encourage meaningful participation, as well as making it an enjoyable experience for the young people. It was important to emphasise to the young people the significance and responsibility of their dissemination work – that they had the potential to reach those with the power to affect positive change. Meaningful participation entails doing something that has a bigger purpose: oung people believe in this purpose and in their capacity to help others (Oliver et al., 2006; Decker et al., 2011). The steps taken to achieve meaningful participation in the current study are described below.
1. Take the time to talk to young people and get to know them:
Building relationships of trust with young people requires time and it is essential to ensure that their authentic views will emerge in the research process (Kennan and Dolan, 2017). One of the successes of this dissemination process was conducting an introductory advisory group with young people. This allowed the researchers and video producer to meet them, get to know their personalities and interests, and identify the potential role they could have based on their personalities, hobbies and talents. This also built good rapport as young people felt listened to and respected.
2. Identify young people’s strengths:
Recognising the capacities of young people is an important part of youth participation (Oliver et al., 2006) and researchers need to assume young people have the capacity to express their views (Lundy et al., 2011). One young person, for example, was very talented at filming and had experience with cameras, and he had a very active role in filming the video. Young people have talents and abilities, and it is important to spend time finding out about them and how they can be utilised within the project.
3. Select a suitable environment for young people:
Young people need to feel comfortable to express themselves, and the need for safe and uncensored spaces for young people to voice their concerns has been highlighted (Bradley, Deighton and Selby, 2004; Lundy et al., 2011;Kennan, Brady and Forkan, 2018). It was decided by the research team and the youth organisation to meet the young people in their community centre as this was a familiar environment for them. This location also had the capacity to be an indoor and outdoor recording venue. Young people provided suggestions around the city centre and public parks, however, these were very open spaces where it might have been challenging to stay together and stay focused on the task with minimum interruptions. As proposed by Lundy et al. (2011) researchers need to listen to the child’s views but make an informed judgement when the outcome of their views may not be in the child’s ‘best interest’. This must be explained in the context of ongoing dialogue between researchers and children in a way that they can understand why their suggestions may not prevail but are taken very seriously into consideration (Lundy et al., 2011).
4. All adults involved need to have the same mind-set regarding participation by young people:
It was crucial to engage adults that valued the involvement of the young people and were willing to act as enablers and supporters of this process, as deliberate attempts are necessary to support children to form and express their views confidently (Lundy et al., 2011). The young people were encouraged to complete the tasks but never forced to share more than they wanted. Work was also carried out in small groups where one adult had the role of listening to the young people, encouraging them to explore their lives and experiences and make them feel comfortable and validated. Regarding safety, it is essential that all adults involved with the group of young people comply with child safety guidelines, for example, by ensuring that they have appropriate Garda vetting. Research teams need to ensure child safety guidelines are adhered to before allowing recording teams, actors or any other support personnel to encounter young people.
5. Provide information sheets and consent forms:
Researchers have a duty of care towards young people to ensure that the levels of distress or burden are reduced or eliminated (Kennan and Dolan, 2017). Consent forms are a well-established ethical standard (ibid, 2017) and young people and parents need to be clear about what their involvement entails, the risks and benefits and the time they are committing (Alderson and Morrow, 2011). In the case of video, young people and their parents need to consent to use their image on websites and in social media. Additionally, it is important to have written parental consent to allow young people to leave the venue on their own or with a different person at the end of the day, to ensure their safety. It is the researchers’ duty to ensure the young people return home safely.
6. Ensure the right to participate or withdraw:
If any young person did not want to be on camera, they could participate by taking other roles such as recording, bringing props and setting scenery. All of the young people were asked to read the script and provide feedback. In the consent and information form the young people were informed that they could disengage from the task at any time without consequences for them personally or for the mentoring programme (Kennan and Dolan, 2017). Such reassurances reduce the pressure on young people and create a friendlier environment for them to be involved voluntarily (Lundy et al., 2011). One young person, for example, attended the advisory group but decided not to take part in any other stages of the process.
7. Bring all young people together at the same time:
As this was a three-part process, finding a suitable date to bring all the young people together was a challenge. Considerations were given to important milestones such as school examinations. A day was selected when the young people could be relaxed and not under the pressure of other tasks. Some of the young people had family commitments and could not attend. However, they were given several options as to week days or weekends and a decision was reached by a majority. It was important to include several young people more the minimum number required, to allow for cancellations on the day.
8. Give careful consideration to providing gifts and rewards:
Providing gifts and rewards to young people for their participation is a matter for ethical consideration. In this case, the young people were paid to take part in the advisory group and the video. The justification for this was they were working for the research project and, therefore, should receive fair payment for their time and commitment. All basic needs of young people should be covered according to the amount of time they spend carrying out the task, and this includes providing meals and coordinating transport to and from the venue if parents themselves cannot provide transport. In this case, the youth organisation took charge of transport for the young people and had direct contact with parents. The work of young people should be valued and is just as important as any other part of the project. It is important to include these costs within the overall dissemination budget, or to find alternative ways to thank young people for their time and involvement.
The video is a valuable tool to inform people about the importance of mentoring relationships and how they promote empathy in young people. The video has the capacity to reach a varied audience and is in a format that can be easily understood beyond academic research (Liebenberg et al., n.d.).
This paper provides an overview of our strategies to facilitate the engagement and meaningful participation of young people in the research dissemination process, and also the challenges and limitations we encountered. Even though there is strong evidence to support the benefits of encouraging participation of young people (Oliver et al., 2006; Finn and Checkoway, 1998; Frank, 2006; Kennan and Dolan, 2017; Lundy et al., 2011; Liebenberg, 2017), challenges remain. One of the limitations of this study is it did not capture the benefits from involvement in the dissemination that the young people might have reported. However, we did not have the capacity to measure this within the time frame of our study. According to Frank (2006) some benefits can become immediately apparent while others may accrue over time; meaningful participation was encouraged but not necessarily achieved. Additionally, as this was a secondary data analysis, these young people were only involved in dissemination. Therefore, if they had been involved throughout the study, the benefits to these young people might have been greater.
More research is needed regarding the involvement of young people in secondary data analysis, as research has suggested that children need to have significant control and ownership of the research if it is to promote their empowerment (Kennan and Dolan, 2017). It is important to build their capacity for meaningful participation (Lundy et al., 2011) however, in secondary data analysis, their involvement and empowerment may be, by its nature, limited.
There is an implicit risk in participatory research that young people’s views may be delivered effectively to relevant policy makers, but these views may not be acted upon (Kennan and Dolan, 2017). In the context of this study, efforts need to be made by the researchers to continue to disseminate the video, but also track its impact (Leitch and Mitchell, 2014; Horgan 2017), and inform young people about this to encourage them to continue engaging meaningfully in research. Hogan (2017) argued that policy should be grounded in children’s realities, and that policy and services should respond accordingly. In the case of this secondary data analysis, policy recommendations were drafted to improve the services Big Brothers and Big Sisters provide. It is also expected that this experience will encourage researchers to foster meaningful participation in research, whether working with primary or secondary sources.
The research and video production were supported by the Children’s Research Network Prevention and Early Intervention Research Initiative Research Grant Scheme 2017-18.