There are several ways in which adolescent research could be conducted by using social networking Web sites. First, researchers may collect observational data from adolescents’ Web profiles without contacting the subjects. This research method commonly involves observation of public information and could be considered exempt from the need for institutional review board (IRB) approval. Second, researchers could use a social networking Web site to identify and communicate with potential subjects for recruitment into a research study. Third, researchers could use the functionality of a social networking Web site within an intervention (eg, recruiting subjects in person to sign in to a health-related MySpace group as an intervention).
Asking teens to volunteer information about health risk behaviors for research purposes has typically garnered strict scrutiny from IRBs, but it is unclear whether collecting this same information via social networking Web sites should or would be viewed similarly. In this article we discuss ethical and regulatory issues in conducting research on adolescents using social networking Web sites.
Research on the MySpace Web site could be viewed as analogous to eavesdropping on conversations that take place in a public place such as a coffee shop. The research subjects involved have chosen to be at the coffee shop, they understand their conversations may be overheard, and recording them often involves only minimal risk. However, these conversations, although held in a public place, are intended for a private audience. Subjects would consider eavesdropping to be impolite or disrespectful at the least and an inappropriate and unconsented invasion of privacy at worst. Although this analogy may be easily grasped, it falls short of capturing the relationship between researcher and subject on social networking Web sites. Social networking Web sites are a venue in which subjects voluntarily publish personal information, including contact information, in a global public forum. Unlike the coffee shop, participants clearly intend for their private information to be available to a wider audience, although they presumably do not expect or intend that researchers will be part of that audience.
A better analogy for research on social networking Web sites would be research on newspaper personal ads. Similar to a MySpace profile, the information is intended to be available to the public and invites correspondence. Both the personal ad and a MySpace profile may contain very personal and intimate information, but this information has been selected by its owner to be published in a public forum. The "subjects" might claim that they did not intend for the information to be used for research purposes, but they could not plausibly claim that the information was private.