Impact of the digital age on social research: CLS shares expertise at SRA Conference 2012

11 December 2012

Social media and web surveys have a valid use in large-scale longitudinal studies, argues Lisa Calderwood, Senior Survey Manager at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

At this year’s Social Research Association (SRA) annual conference, Lisa shared CLS’s experience of using both social media and web surveys in running the British birth cohort studies.

In many ways, longitudinal studies are better placed than cross-sectional surveys to take advantage of the opportunities that new technologies offer. Much more is known about the participants, such as internet use and smartphone ownership, which allows survey managers to target the use of new technologies. CLS is currently testing the potential of web surveys and social media within the 1958, 1970 and millennium cohort studies.

Using ‘mixed modes’ in the 1958 National Child Development Study

When 1958 cohort members are next surveyed at age 55, they will be asked to complete a questionnaire online. Those who prefer not to use the web option will be offered a telephone interview instead.

One of the major challenges of this approach has been adapting the complex event history calendars for self-completion on the web. Along with fieldwork partner TNS-BMRB, CLS has developed an interactive calendar that builds up a picture of people’s lives since the time they were last surveyed, covering their partnership, employment and housing transitions.

Findings from usability testing showed that respondents found the online calendar intuitive and easy to use – and they said that it actually helped them to remember when things happened. This will be the first time that an interactive web calendar has been used on a major longitudinal study in the UK.

Using social media to engage teenage participants in the Millennium Cohort Study

The millennium cohort children will be 14 years old when they are next surveyed. In 2011, 95 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds had internet access at home, 87 per cent had a mobile phone, 41 per cent had a smartphone and 75 per cent had an active profile on a social networking site (Ofcom, 2011).

By the time of the age 14 survey, the millennium cohort members will expect to be able to engage with the study using the internet and on their mobile phone and to interact with it via Facebook, Twitter, SMS and email. In 2013, CLS will be asking cohort members themselves how they want to engage with study. CLS will then develop an approach to using new technology based on the teenagers’ perspectives and possibly including a new website, smartphone app Facebook group and Twitter feed.

CLS is also exploring the use of an online time-diary component as part of the age 14 survey, as well as the possibility for real-time reporting and direct measurement of behaviour through mobile surveys.

Tracing 1970 cohort members via their digital footprint

But new technology and social media are not just for teenagers. According to Ofcom, 62 per cent of all adults used social networking sites in 2012, including 7 in 10 of those aged 35 to 44. These sites often include a large amount of personal information, and can thus be a useful tool for finding people. CLS is trialling the use of Facebook and similar sites for tracing members of the 1970 cohort, now aged 42.

However, the success of this approach is largely dependent on people’s privacy settings. Searching Facebook yields many possible matches, which need to be reviewed individually. Determining whether a Facebook profile is actually that of the person you’re looking for depends on how much personal information is made publicly available.


The SRA conference, Social research in the digital age, was held on December 10, 2012 at the British Library in London. It brought together speakers from the academic, non-profit and commercial sectors to discuss the impact of the digital age on social research – from new data collection tools and methods to innovations in the way that findings are analysed, presented and shared.

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