January 12, 2016, by Centre for Applied Social Research

Research 4 U! Using Mobiles when Researching With Young People.

Author:  Dr Samantha Wilkinson

Interviews, participant observation, diaries – there are endless methods around to conduct research, but are these methods a culturally credible means of researching with young people?

When conducting my PhD research into the drinking practices of 40 young people living in two suburban areas in the North West of England, I found that mobile phones were important tools of communication for the specific group of young people I was working with. Considering it important to engage with young people ‘on their own terms’, I decided to enroll mobile phones, specifically text messaging, as a research tool.

I found that one of the benefits of text messaging is its ability to update me of events that occur without my presence. For instance, one club was notoriously cautious about allowing groups of young men to enter. When I accompanied the young men during participant observations, they had no problem entering the club; when I was not with this group on another occasion, they texted me telling me that they were not allowed to enter. My presence during the young men’s night out, as a female researcher, appeared to interrupt how they typically experience their nights out, whereas text messaging offered me an insight into the usual proceedings.

Also, text messaging is beneficial because most other methods, including interviews and diaries, require people to remember and recall events. However, the date-and time-stamped text messages provide an ‘experience snapshot’ of young people’s alcohol-related, present-tense, action. Overall, text messaging offers an informal, undemanding, means of understanding young people’s drinking experiences, as they unfold.

This method is not without problems: as young people become increasingly involved in the night’s activities, and as their levels of drunkenness increase, they may forget to send texts, or the language in their texts may become less decipherable. There were also occasions when young people told me their mobile phones ran out of battery, restricting me from understanding how their nights unfolded. Another word of caution, when using this method to explore young people’s drinking experiences, is that young people may send text messages in the mire of drunkenness that, when sober, they may no longer wish to be used as data.

Notwithstanding this, when seeking to find out about young people’s lives, I urge researchers to be creative with the tools they are using, and to make a concerted effort to communicate with young people in ways that the young people deem to be relevant.

Samantha Wilkinson, January 2016.

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Samantha is a Research Associate in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, working on the BOUGH project, which aims to broaden understandings of good home care for people with dementia.  Her PhD research was in Human Geography on ‘young people, alcohol and urban life’, exploring young people’s drinking practices using a flexible suite of methods, including: interviews, peer interviews, drawing elicitation interviews, diaries, mobile phone methods, and participant observation.

Main image courtesy of Flickr.

Posted in Young People