Three tips for successfully sampling adolescents at schools

Adolescents are a fascinating group to study, because (as Britney once loosely put it) they are not children, [though] not yet adults (Spears, 2001).

Finding adolescents to participate in a study however can be difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Contacting schools seems like a convenient solution. Even though this can surely save time and money, there are some pitfalls to be wary of when you are working with people outside of your immediate field.

When collecting data for a study on the effects of advergaming among adolescents, I learned that getting my (scientific) point across to people outside of my own field sometimes requires specific tact. After some ups and down, I feel confident however to share three main tips for working with people outside of your immediate field—and for sampling adolescents at schools.

Leverage their social network

The first step in sampling adolescents at schools is to find schools.

Cold calling schools can be tough, especially since participating in research, for most schools (rightfully so), is not a top priority. Answers like “we are actually very busy this period” or “we are under-staffed (leave us alone)” are to be expected. When you (or your university) have good credentials, cold calling might not always be a fruitless endeavor, however there are alternatives.

The best one is to leverage your own social network and to look for a teacher. Do not worry if none of your direct friends are teachers, because statistically speaking you have at least a friend-of-a-friend that teaches.

This might seem obvious, but the true advice here is to realize that your teacher-friend is the key to reaching more schools, because: teachers know teachers.

If your friend does not have time to help you, you could always ask him or her if they know someone in their social circle that might be able to help you—success (almost) guaranteed.

Terminology is key

By now you have found a school (or two), and it is time to convince the parents to give their informed consent — and let their child participate in your study.

As you are hopefully aware, the terminology we (as researchers) use to communicate with each other might not always be clear to (or sometimes even misunderstood by) others. It is therefore important to carefully consider the words you use when contacting parents.

An example: Take the word ‘experiment’. This word might seem harmless to a researcher in the social sciences, but still I would recommend avoiding it at all cost. Where I (as a social scientist) might mean “letting half a class play a game and the other half play no game” or “showing three different ads in a class and asking which one the adolescents liked best” when I use to word ‘experiment’, parents might have other associations with this jargon word—for example associations with medical sciences. As you can imagine, it is important to avoid parents having even the slightest incorrect belief that their child might be participating in some kind of medical experiment.

Therefore: try to keep your language simple and stick to terminology like ‘asking questions’, or ‘taking a survey’. If in doubt, just ask one of the teachers for advice; they will know which words work and (maybe more importantly) which do not work.

The best group is no group

Once you finally convinced both school and parent, it is time to meet the kids on their turf.

Adolescents are known to be impulsive and very receptive to their social surroundings. The group dynamic is therefore an important factor to consider and depending on the group, even filling out a short questionnaire can result in complete chaos.

In order to assure that your data is not confounded by ‘chaos’, conducting your study in smaller groups is preferred, where group dynamics are less of a problem. Ideally you would eliminate the group altogether by setting up a mini-lab where your participants can partake in the study one by one.

All in all, working with people outside of your field can be a struggle (at first). However when done correctly, it can be a fun and insightful experience—both for you and for the other person.

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