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Doing long-distance research with vulnerable adolescents under COVID-19 lockdown

Country research team in Jordan. Photo: Agnieszka Malachowska/GAGE

Insights from researchers in Jordan and Lebanon

Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) is conducting longitudinal participatory research with older adolescents (aged 15-19) in Lebanon and Jordan. Following the lockdown, our team of local researchers adapted the research process to virtual research activities. Agnieszka Malachowska, the GAGE Programme Manager in the Middle East talks with our researchers in Lebanon and Jordan about their experiences of doing virtual research activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the lessons learned.

Agnieszka: We are interested in understanding the approach you took to get in touch with our adolescent participants and if there were any challenges.

Kifah from Jordan: I work with two groups of girls, one with  visual disabilities and another with hearing disabilities from Gaza camp in Jerash, Jordan. I live in Ramallah city in Palestine and I used to travel to Jordan to conduct our research activities. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, I resorted to international phone calls combined with digital methods like notes and voice recording applications as well as WhatsApp for conducting research activities. Most of the girls in the two groups do not own phones, so I initially started by sending text-messages to the parents requesting phone calls with the participants and their parents to explain the process. The parents’ coordination was critical for me, as they helped translate my questions to their children using local sign language. I also gave the adolescents with hearing disabilities the option of sending their answers through WhatsApp messages, and those with visual disabilities in some cases also send voice-recorded answers. However, access to internet was a challenge and communication between us was slow.

Sarah from Jordan: I work with three different groups, a group of Syrian married girls, a group of Syrian working boys, and a gender-mixed group of Jordanian adolescents with hearing disabilities. I needed to adopt different approaches with each of these groups. At first, I notified all the participants about the plan for short interviews and we set a time for each. To conduct the interview I used  phone calls, WhatsApp calls or communication through WhatsApp groups or calls via IMO applications. The most difficult group to conduct interviews with was the married Syrian girls as they have limited time due to the increased work they are currently doing at home. Our calls were constantly disturbed and rescheduled due to the girls’ preoccupation with the housework. I tried to make my interviews with the girls as brief  as possible and in some cases, we did the interviews in several segments when they were able to snatch ten or fifteen minutes to themselves.

As for the Syrian boys’ group, the biggest challenge was setting a time for the interviews because the boys’ daily routine has changed since the lockdown was implemented. They sleep all day and wake up at night (internet is faster at night and they want to have a bit more privacy in crowded houses), so we had to schedule the interviews after midnight to be able to talk to them. With the gender-mixed group of Jordanian adolescents with hearing disabilities, I needed to coordinate the interviews with the parents or family members as it was important to get  their help with translating the conversation between me and the adolescent participants. Whereas we usually work through a local sign interpreter, it became clear that  most of the family members were not able to understand their children’s sign language and were not able to communicate most of my questions to their children, highlighting that young people like this are particularly vulnerable in the current context.

Sally from Lebanon: I work with three groups of adolescent girls including a group of Palestinian girls from Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, a group of Lebanese girls from Baalbek city and a group of married Syrian girls from an informal tented settlement near Baalbek city. At the beginning of the project in Lebanon, we created WhatsApp groups for each of our groups. I generally use these groups to stay in touch with the participants between sessions and to follow up on our participatory research activities. For those who do not own phones, we contact them on their mothers’ or sisters’ phone numbers. I was already in touch with the participants since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, hence it was not challenging to reach them when we transitioned to long-distance research. WhatsApp calls were the main method used to contact the participants, but I also had to rely often on regular phone calls. In Ein el-Hilweh camp for example, challenges included lack of access to good internet services, frequent electricity cuts, very poor connection to mobile networks and the fact that many camp inhabitants own international phone numbers as they often struggle to access local Lebanese numbers. To do the interviews, we needed to schedule times when the girls would be available and have access to good internet. As for the Lebanese girls, online education has put  increased pressure on the girls who find it challenging to adapt to the online technology and are spending more time studying than they used to do before the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. The most challenging group however, was the married Syrian girls group. All the girls in the group do not own phones and use their husbands’ phones in get in contact with me. The girls have limited access to their husbands’ phones and internet connectivity at the camp is very weak. Moreover, the girls are now under increased pressure at home where they have more housework and childcare responsibilities, with the whole household staying at home. Our communication with the Syrian girls was slow and the interviews were often interrupted due to the girls’ preoccupation with work and children at home.

Agnieszka: I understand that these times are challenging for vulnerable young people who are confined to often very crowded apartments or tents. Could you tell us more about the challenges that young people faced in doing long-distance interviews and if they have access to mobile phones, time and space to talk?

Kifah from Jordan: Among the 14 girls I work with, only four of them have phones. The girls’ families do not allow them to own phones due to the cultural perceptions of the negative effects of phones on girls’ behavior and reputation. The girls generally use their parents’ phones, and because of the surveillance they face by parents and older brothers, they told me that they delete messages straight after sending them.

Sarah from Jordan: All the married Syrian girls had their own mobile phones, however some of the girls’ phone numbers were disconnected so we had to resort to social media applications and some of the girls who do not have access to wireless internet have to use their husbands’ phones. Moreover, these girls face challenges doing the interviews in private spaces because they live with their in-laws and in overcrowded households. As for the boys’ group, half of them do not own phones and use their mothers’ phones which make it more challenging to get in contact with them. Furthermore, the boys generally spend time outdoors after the curfew, and they are unreachable between 10.00 am and 06.00 pm. Even with these limitations, the adolescents were really happy that I reached out and spoke with them, especially the children with hearing disabilities. Their families were especially happy that I spoke with their children as they had not been contacted by anyone since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Marcel from Lebanon: I work with three groups of boys, a group of out-of-school Palestinian boys who live in Ein el-Hilweh camp in Lebanon, a working Syrian boys group living in collective shelters in Baalbek, and a Lebanese boys group from Baalbek city. Compared to the challenges of contacting girls, the interviews with boys were more straightforward. All the children had the space and time to talk, with some interruption from families, but it went better than expected. I found that the Syrian and Palestinian boys live with larger families than the Lebanese boys and have less private space to do the interviews, especially the Syrian boys. All the boys have bad internet connections which was challenging when doing the interviews.

Sally from Lebanon: The majority of the Palestinian and Lebanese girls have their own phones and those who do not, have access to their mothers or sisters’ phones. As for the Syrian married girls, none of these girls owns a phone and they use their husbands’ phones but access is very restricted. To talk to the girls, I generally leave a message with the husbands that I need to talk with their wives and the girls talk to me when they have access to the phone. When we did the interviews, some of the girls were sitting next to their husbands or family which meant they had little opportunity to freely express any sensitive matters or private issues. Nonetheless, many girls would go walking around their tent whilst on the call with me. The girls have stated that since the lockdown, they have not been able to rest during the day since they’re taking care of all the family’s needs. This have been overwhelming for many girls especially those who live in large households with their children and in-laws. The worsening economic situation, which was a concern for almost all the girls from the different groups, has also added additional chores onto the Syrian girls who are now baking bread at home as their families can no longer afford to buy bread due to the loss of household income. Even so, the majority of participants were very excited when we did the phone interviews and were enthusiastic about doing the participatory activities that we assigned them. The interviews allowed the participants a break their isolation and talk about their feelings and the challenges they are facing. Some of the girls, especially those out of school, were excited to talk and start doing activities again as they need to distract themselves during the lockdown.

Agnieszka: Thank you for these interesting insights. I would also like to know more about your own experiences of doing research through phone or WhatsApp and how it differs from face to face interactions from your own perspective?

Kifah from Jordan: Research through phone requires more effort and time to engage the girls in the activity compared to face-to-face interviews. Girls in our regular group discussions have equal opportunities to participate and a private-safe space to express themselves freely which is lacking in phone-based interviews. More than one research facilitator administers our research sessions, making it easier for us as researchers to engage the participants and deliver the activities. Moreover, almost all the participants with disabilities are not proficient using  phones which makes it hard to collect the data needed as they are not able to type, record or take photos using phones.

Sarah from Jordan: The face-to-face interviews allow us to figure out if the participants are comfortable by analysing their facial reactions and body movements but this is not possible over the phone. Moreover, phone interviews do not allow us to have interactive conversations with the participants as they are more direct and brief. In face-to-face interviews, participants are encouraged to share sensitive information, however they were more reluctant to do so over the phone and sometimes appeared to be bored. Communicating with children with disabilities over the phone is especially hard as we don’t have the assistance of a sign language translator.

Sally from Lebanon: I am generally more accustomed to face-to-face interviews, which allow me to not only build a relationship with the participants on a personal level but also give the girls more space and time to express themselves in a safe space. The first couple of interviews were a trial for me. Since I cannot see their body and facial expressions, I relied on their tone of voice, as I have the privilege of knowing each of the participants on a personal level. Silence can also be a reflection that the participants are not comfortable, and paying attention to the background helps you understand the setting of the interview. However, even when you adapt your approach to a long-distance interview, they are still limited compared to face-to-face interviews or group discussions. Nonetheless, it is helpful to consider this an opportunity to experience and understand what long-distance interaction means for the majority of young people today who have grown up in a digital world. On a different note, doing long-distance research also requires more flexibility when setting the interview schedules as they change a lot according to the girls’ availability and the conversations could be interrupted and done over several calls, which requires more patience and attentiveness.

Marcel from Lebanon: Doing online individual interviews was difficult for me as it was a new experience, however, I am expecting that the group discussions will be easier than asking direct questions to one person. Doing long-distance research is definitely more challenging than face-to-face interviews, but knowing the boys from previous activities has at least removed the awkwardness and the emotional distance during phone interviews.

Agnieszka: Interesting – it seems in sum that virtual interviews are more challenging and not as rich as in-person interviews, but that it is still possible to learn quite a lot in this way given that you already have a relationship with the young people being interviewed. Thank you all very much for the very interesting insights that you have shared.

Some key points that emerged from your reflections that other researchers wanting to understand people’s experiences of life under COVID-19 in ‘real time’ could consider: include the need to be especially attentive to the context in which the phone interviews are taking place; being flexible about scheduling interviews to suit the participant’s new daily routine under lockdown and holding conversations in several segments if necessary; and only asking sensitive questions when the participant signals that they have privacy. We look forward to the next interview and hearing your thoughts on unexpected findings about young people’s experiences of life under COVID-19.