Requiring formal proof that a researcher does not have a criminal record or other evidence of potential offending is one form of protection against some more serious risks of harm to children, but there are other significant risks that this precaution does not guard against. In respect of the first area of children’s vulnerability noted earlier – that of the power imbalance between the child and adult researchers – there are risks that children may agree to requests, suggestions or even to their own perceptions of such directives, even though they may not actually be comfortable with them.
Researchers can seem like authority figures to children, who may feel that they have to comply with what they think the researcher wants. As well as potentially creating a distressing experience for a child due to acquiescing to an unwelcome directive, this is also an important source of potential bias in research results. For example, in a classic Piagetian conservation task, the child is asked if two quantities remain the same, even though one has been transformed in shape. Since the child was previously asked whether the quantities were the same before the transformation, it has been argued that when the adult asks the same question again after the transformation, the child may say that the quantity of substance has changed, even if they actually believe it has stayed the same. It’s suggested that this happens because the child imagines that the questioner must be expecting a different answer to the first one given before the transformation.