Rachel Heah (University of Liverpool)

It was truly a privilege to be able to present in the Children’s Rights stream of the SLSA 2018. Questions and comments received from the audience have helped me reflect on the methods used, and will come in very handy when I write up my methodology chapter!

In this blog post – based on my paper delivered last week at the SLSA conference in Bristol – I will reflect on my experiences of using both online and in-person focus groups to conduct research with over 80 young people, aged 12-16, about their experiences of school-based Sex and Relationships Education (SRE).

Using (online) focus groups

I chose to use focus groups because I felt that they would reduce the power imbalances between myself, as an adult researcher, and my participants, and give them more control over the direction of the discussions.[1]Further, to minimize the ‘embarrassment factor’ of talking about sex and relationships, even in the context of education or lessons, I opted to conduct these focus groups online, to give participants increased anonymity and confidentiality. Because of their familiarity and comfort with the digital world, there is a suggestion that online methods are particularly advantageous for researching with children and young people.[2]

The online focus groups were hosted in a private, secure, virtual meeting room. Participants logged in to the room under their chosen nicknames, and chatted to each other synchronously. Due to ethical concerns however, the online focus groups were conducted in participants’ schools, with participants sat in the same classroom, but typing on iPads.

Image:Layout of the online focus groups, with the main chat area in the centre

Although the plan was to use online focus groups in allthe schools I worked with, I was unable to use online focus groups in some schools due to problems around hardware and firewalls, so in-person focus groups were employed instead. In total therefore, I have conducted 5 online focus groups (including 2 pilots) and 7 in-person focus groups. Admittedly, having ‘mixed methods’ makes for quite a messy methodology and analysis, but it has also made it possible for me to compare the use of online and in-person focus groups.

Differences between online and in-person focus groups: My own reflections

I observed that there were several ways in which online focus groups differed from in-person ones. Whilst both produced power imbalancesbetween participants themselves, the in-person focus groups were dominated by some participants, who vociferously answered all questions put to the group, with others merely agreeing, whereas online focus groups tended to invite responses from all participants. However, the latter were dominated by those who could type faster, and who were not as concerned about their spelling or grammar. Participants also seemed more engaged in the online focus groups than in the in-person ones, possibly because they were excited to use technology, and because they could answer questions at the same time and at their own pace. In the in-person focus groups, a few participants became noticeably bored and disengaged while waiting for their peers to finish talking. Participants in the online focus groups were also less likely to over-disclose information, choosing instead to think carefully before typing their answers. In comparison, participants in the in-person focus groups sometimes indicated that they may have let slip information that they would have preferred not to share. This has me conflicted as a researcher – while on the one hand, increased disclosure through in-person focus groups would mean richer and more organic data, on the other, I believe that participants should have the right to self-censor. Finally,moderating in-person and online focus groups also called for very different skills, which I had to pick up “on the job”.

Participants’ views on online focus groups

At the end of the online focus groups, participants were asked what they thought of the research method. There were a few criticisms, especially pertaining to the layout of the meeting room, which was said to be rather boring. However, for the most part, participants described online focus groups as “fun” and “good”, “easy to navigate” and “simple to use”. They also liked the fact that they did not have to “speak”/“talk”/“write things”, preferring instead to type their answers out. Finally, many participants mentioned that they appreciated the anonymity offered by online focus groups, as they felt that they could “talk openly” without feeling judged. As such, participants themselves seemed to like online focus groups.


These are my preliminary reflections on using online and in-person focus groups, but as the fieldwork is still ongoing, new thoughts may arise. So far, I would say that online focus groups are not a perfect method for conducting research – but then again, can any research method claim to be completely flawless? It is true that I faced specific hurdles in trying to use online focus groups, which probably would not have arisen in relation to more “established” research methods like individual interviews or in-person focus groups. However, given what my participants have said about the method, I would contend that conducting focus groups online, in a space that is accessible, familiar and engaging to young people, has achieved my objective of “bringing research to their doorsteps”.

[1]Clare Farquhar, ‘Are Focus Groups Suitable for ‘Sensitive’ Topics?’ in R Barbour & J Kitzinger (eds) Developing Focus Group Research(Sage, 2011) pp. 47-63

[2]Sonia Livingstone & Alicia Blum-Ross, ‘Researching Children and Childhood in the Digital Age’ in P Christensen & A James (eds) Research With Children: Perspectives and Practices(Routledge, 2017), pp 54-70