Primal Numbers – Lab Kids

Pity the poor guinea pig. Its name is forever linked to being poked and prodded in the name of scientific research?and it never gets a say in the matter. Then again, neither does a small group of human test subjects: kids who are used in neuroscience or psychology studies. It might be good for science, but is it bad for the kids?

Science has a long, and sometimes alarming, history of using children as test subjects. Like Jonas Salk, who injected his own kids with polio vaccine. Or the infamous case of Little Albert, a nine-month-old boy who was conditioned to fear soft, fluffy objects?and released from the lab before he could be deconditioned.

But that was back in 1920 and things have changed a lot since then. Today, a social science experiment involving kids is more likely to be a game, like following directions to find a stuffed animal in a drawer. That’s the type of research that takes place at the University of Toronto’s Language and Learning Lab, which, as the CBC reports, “aims to find out how children learn best, and what factors can help them learn better or impede their learning.”

Still, there are plenty of ethical worries when it comes to using kids in any type of experiment. Especially when the researchers are also the parents. One example is the case of Karen Dobkins, a U.C.S.D. psychology professor. As The New York Times notes, Dr. Dobkins used her infant twin sons in an experiment that involved a game. One baby did well but the other did poorly. So poorly, in fact, that Dobkins “took only the good data and copied it and put it in both of their baby books.”

There are also concerns about what happens to that data once the child is grown. Suppose, for instance, that your child is part of a language study as a toddler. Twenty years later, the lab tracks him down as part of a follow-up to the original experiment. Since he didn’t originally give consent to being used as a test subject, can he demand that the original data be destroyed? If not, could that data somehow be used by an insurance company or employer to limit (or enhance) his opportunities?

If it all sounds a bit sinister, this use of innocent babes in social science experiments, the truth is that the world does exactly the same thing to kids in dozens of ways every day.

After all, there’s nothing new about parents favouring one child over another, or worrying if little Johnny doesn’t talk as early as his sister Jane did.

And comparing babies has been a source of pride and concern among new parents for centuries. Who hasn’t exulted that their child/grandchild/niece/nephew took its first step months before the neighbour’s slightly-less-perfect kid did? Parents don’t become fair and impartial just because their reactions aren’t based on scientific test results.

It could also be argued that the classroom is a social experiment not unlike the lab. Kids are given tasks, tested, observed, and compared. Their reactions and behaviour are recorded in files that follow them all the way to university. And unlike scientific studies, those classroom results aren’t anonymized. It’s just as plausible that a company or employer could gain access to those records as it could to some lab results from 20 or 30 years ago.

If there’s any case to be made against using kids in ethical, controlled lab studies, is that the lab setups are deliberate?a specific action meant to create or test for specific results. Whereas sibling interactions and life in general aren’t engineered that way. Except, in many ways, they are. From Baby Einstein products to high-end daycares that promise to prep your toddler for the Ivy League, it’s perfectly acceptable to fine tune the methods and environment to get the desired result.

So while the notion of kids as social-science guinea pigs might sound alarming, it’s not. Not as long as ethical guidelines are followed. Besides, you might just discover that you’ve got the next little Einstein on your hands.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.