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How do I run a study with sensitive or disturbing content?

Overview

Studies with sensitive or disturbing content can be run on Prolific. This article provides guidance for researchers on best practices for running studies with sensitive or disturbing content. If you have any questions about your study and how best to include sensitive content on Prolific, please get in touch with our support team, using the button at the bottom of this page.

Why is it important to be careful with sensitive or disturbing content?

Extra caution should be taken when using sensitive or disturbing content. Anything that may be distressing to participants should be carefully reviewed before being published on Prolific. It’s important to weigh up the benefit of your research versus the potential harm this content can cause to participants.

On Prolific, we want to help you deliver world-leading research, whilst still making sure our platform is a safe space for all who use it. Making sure sensitive or disturbing content is managed well is one of the many steps that can help researchers and participants continue getting the most out of Prolific!

What constitutes sensitive or disturbing content?

This article focuses on participants viewing content. Please see elsewhere on our help centre for asking questions about sensitive topics and for our policy on personal information.

Disturbing or explicit content includes anything shown to participants that is graphic, violent, sexual, or egregious.

Disturbing or explicit content can come in many forms: text, such as derogatory words; images and videos, such as sexually explicit content; audio, such as profanity.

Sensitive content includes discussions revolving around deeply personal topics or potentially distressing issues. Sensitive content can also come in various forms: typical approaches involve asking questions or presenting scenarios related to health, trauma, or other potentially upsetting subjects.

To understand if your study includes sensitive content, we recommend previewing your study and reviewing all the materials within it. Often, sensitive content will be obvious to you. However, it’s possible to become accustomed to the content especially if you’ve designed the study. We recommend reviewing your study against common content policies such as Google’s content policies.

Best practice for studies with sensitive or disturbing content

If you think your study includes sensitive or disturbing content, please follow the advice below.

On Prolific, we believe everyone on the platform should have a positive and inclusive experience. To make sure your study doesn’t cause offense or upset participants, please follow the guidance we have below. If you have any questions, please get in touch with our support team using the button at the bottom of the page.

Content and trigger warnings

A content or trigger warning aims to let individuals know there may be upsetting material before they’re shown it. These can be particularly useful for studies with sensitive content.

You can select the appropriate content warning as part of the study setup, under study details.

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Eligible participants will see the selected content warning on the study details page so that they can make an informed decision about opting into your study. 

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We also recommend including these warnings in your study description. It can be difficult to find the balance between giving enough information to participants, so that they understand the warning, versus the warning itself becoming upsetting with too much information. Overall, in your study description, you can keep your content warnings broader. For instance, “In this study, you will be shown images of a violent nature”. You can then provide a more detailed content warning within your consent form and study.

We also have a helpful blog post: How to write the perfect study description here. If you have any questions about your consent process, please get in touch with our support team at the bottom of the page!

Prescreeners

If your study will include sensitive or harmful content, please use our Harmful Content Prescreener. You can find this prescreener under the Participation on Prolific category:

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If you select 'Yes' on this prescreener, your study will only be shown to participants who have self-reported they’re comfortable viewing this type of content. We have a large number of participants who have said 'Yes' to this prescreener, so you should still be able to recruit your full sample!

You may also wish to use our Deception prescreener. This prescreener asked participants 'Would you be happy to take part in a study where you are intentionally given inaccurate information about other participants and the study? You would be debriefed after the study.' Participants who have said yes to this should be comfortable with deception, while other participants may be uncomfortable with it. Whilst this prescreener isn’t necessary for sensitive content it may be useful to make sure you’re recruiting the participants you need!

Gaining Informed Consent

Making sure your participants understand your study and consent to taking part is important for all research and especially true for sensitive content studies.

In all studies on Prolific, you should ask participants to consent to your study before they begin sharing data, including demographic questions.

Informed consent is where participants are fully aware of what’s being asked of them, going beyond simply consent to be part of some research. Gaining informed consent is particularly important for sensitive content studies as participants should be very aware of what they will be doing and shown if there’s any risk it could be upsetting. The UK government has provided a useful resource for understanding what’s needed to gain informed consent here.

We also have this helpful blog post: How to write the perfect consent form for research. If you have any questions about your consent process, please get in touch with our support team using the button at the bottom of the page!

Generative AI

Particular caution around disturbing or explicit content should be taken with generative AIs. This is because, unlike traditional content, researchers cannot fully control what is shown to participants.

If your study utilises generative AI, please inform participants by applying a content warning in your content form. You may need to use the deception prescreener if telling participants would impact your study design.

Whilst using generative AI, you as the researcher, are still responsible for any disturbing or explicit content shown to Prolific participants. This makes it particularly important to make sure participants are debriefed after the study.

Debriefing participants

After any study you should debrief participants. This is to make sure participants know how their data will be used and where to go if they have any questions.

Importantly, your debrief should be before participants complete your study. It should include information about the purpose of your study, how the participants’ data will contribute to your research, and who to contact if participants have any questions.

We recommend instructing participants to contact you via Prolific’s internal messaging system to ensure participant anonymity. You should also let participants know who else to contact about the study. This will likely be the Institutional Review Board that gave ethical approval to your study but could also be your department or team lead.

A debrief can also be a place to signpost participants to wellness resources and advice for handling the sensitive content they’ve seen.

Signposting participants to resources

We recommend reviewing our Sensitive or disturbing study content participant Help Centre article . These resources can be used at the end of your study to help support participants who’ve seen sensitive content. You won’t need to signpost to every resource here, only the ones that are appropriate to the relevant content. If you recommend any other resources that could be added to this list, please let our support team know below!


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