Sensitive Research With Adolescents: Just How Upsetting Are Self-Report Surveys Anyway?

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Distress related to answering personal survey questions about drug use, suicidal behavior, and physical and sexual abuse were examined in multiple convenience samples of adolescents. Samples varied in consent procedures utilized (active vs. passive parental consent), data collection setting (school vs. juvenile justice), developmental level (middle school vs. high school). Participation rates differed across consent procedures (e.g., 93% with passive vs. 62% with active parental consent). Results indicated that small percentages of adolescents in every sample reported frequently feeling upset while completing the survey (range 2.5% to 7.6%). Age, race, gender, and data collection strategy did not emerge as significant predictors of feeling upset. Instead, as hypothesized, adolescents reporting a history of suicidal ideation or attempt, illicit drug use, or experiences of physical or sexual victimization endorsed more frequent feelings of upset while completing the survey than peers without these experiences. Taken together, however, these sensitive event experiences explained only 6.6% of the variance in adolescents' upset ratings. The scientific and ethical implications of these findings are discussed with regard to adolescent participation in survey research about sensitive topics.

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