Reaching out online

Reaching out online

June 18, 2010
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Illustration: Dennis Yip

Social workers and volunteers are moving into cyberspace to help troubles teens, writes Lai Ying-kit

Small public parks, basketball fields and street corners may be the usual places for social workers to look for troubled teenagers, but the rising popularity of the internet has taken their outreach service online.

Blogs and social networking websites are not only a platform for people to share their feelings and frustration with friends. Some young people also use them to arrange drug transactions, compensated dates, gambling and other criminal or dangerous activities.

While the mainstream service provided by the Social Welfare Department does not include online outreach, some volunteer and social welfare groups have taken their teams into cyberspace to reach at-risk youths.

They visit discussion forums, social networking sites and blogs, scouring through tonnes of messages for "pointer words" to lead them to troubled teenagers. They also use search engines to look for these words.

For a team of three social workers at Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, browsing the internet for hours has become a daily routine. They plough through online forums in search of messages containing signs of depression, phrases such as 'I want to end my life', or those resembling suicide notes.

Once they spot such a message, the task will be passed on to volunteers, who will post a reply to the troubled teens to try to start a dialogue.

Chiu Mei-yin, the officer in charge of the service, says the volunteer team is made up of people who have dealt with issues that teenagers face. Their background makes it easier for them to communicate with the teens. 'The first thing is to build trust. Troubled teens are more willing to talk to those with a similar background,' Chiu says.

'Many emotionally troubled people are unwilling to seek help. They will disappear the moment they realise they're talking to a social worker or a law enforcement officer.'

The social workers and volunteers also need to learn the language used by young people on the internet. Take drug abuse, for example. Bloggers and discussion board participants use code names when talking about drugs to avoid being noticed. The social workers have to understand their slang.

Caritas Hong Kong Youth and Community Service Centre has created a database of slang for various drugs used by young bloggers so that their social workers can do online searches to find potential drug users.

About 20 young drug addicts have come forward asking for help since their online outreach service was launched last year, centre supervisor Chan Wai-leung says.

'Some of these teenagers told us they were going to court, and were looking for counselling and emotional support.'

He says some teens are willing to seek help, but are too shy to meet face-to-face, so volunteers keep in touch with them via instant messaging.

Hung Hin-ching, who heads a team of online addiction counsellors at Hong Kong Christian Service, explains why this method is effective.

'These teenagers are often otakus and feel more comfortable communicating online, rather than on the phone,' he says.

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