Open Access Debate

Observational research with adolescents: a framework for the management of the parental permission

Miguel Ruiz-Canela12*, Cristina Lopez-del Burgo13, Silvia Carlos3, Maria Calatrava1, Carlos Beltramo1, Alfonso Osorio14 and Jokin de Irala13

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain

2 Department of Biomedical Humanities, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain

3 Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain

4 Department of Education, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:2  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-2

Published: 3 January 2013



Waiving parent permission can be an option in some epidemiological and social research with adolescents. However, exemptions have not been uniformly considered or applied. Our aim is to critically assess the different factors that could be taken into account when making decisions about waiving active parental permission in observational research with adolescents.


In some cases alternatives to parental permission could be applied to protect the rights of both adolescents and parents and also to assure the benefits to adolescents as a group that can come from appropriately conducted studies. However, the criteria of ensuring minimal risk can be difficult to define and apply and a distinction between harm and discomfort is reviewed. Waiving active parental permission could be acceptable when the risk of harm is minimal; when the research questions are related to an activity for which adolescents are not legally considered to be children; when the risk of harm or discomfort may increase if parental permission is required; and when risk of discomfort is low because the questionnaire is not potentially offensive for some adolescents and/or for some parents.


Stringent rules concerning parental permission in some studies could be detrimental to adolescents. A framework and a decision tree guide are proposed to help researchers and Research Ethics Committees in their decisions on whether active parental permission must be obtained.

Adolescents; Parental consent; Research ethics; Observational research; Health surveys; Research subjects