A two-sentence announcement in the chief executive's policy address was as tiny as it is vital: using the internet to reach out to troubled young people. This is an extremely important message that we must follow up. The reason is both simple and clear: the internet has become the major source of information and communication for young people. It also provides them with a strong social and cultural environment, where they participate, contribute and share opinions, thoughts and feelings much more readily than if required to do so face to face.
In North America, Australia and some parts of Europe, the provision of counselling and other youth services online is slowly gaining ground. Adolescents and other young people who are troubled, depressed or even suicidal have a tendency to isolate themselves, preferring to spend time on their computers, often chatting or e-mailing with others. Secrets and troubles are shared, confessions made and sometimes self-harming or suicide pacts agreed upon. For some, the internet is a lifeline.
The advantages of this approach to troubled young people are enormous. It enables them to retain some control over circumstances, if only through their own proficiency on the internet and their greater articulation at writing than speaking. It also enables social workers, educators and others to contact people who might otherwise be inaccessible, in real time and in the privacy of their own environments. With the potential to offer 24-hour access, the impact could be immeasurable.
The government can assist by ensuring that those on the other side of the line or computer screen are properly trained professionals. This is important, since providing services over the internet requires different skill sets and competencies than the more traditional assistance rendered face to face. First, the professional must be quick-witted enough to recognise the difference between a genuine case and a prankster. Second, the professional needs to learn the typical cyber vernacular that young people use, to develop the genuine rapport that allows for real assistance to be proffered.
Third, the professional needs the skills to 'read' responses, especially when using chat software, and to know when to start or stop typing, allowing the young person to have the dominant role in the conversation. Finally, however over-confident a young person may seem in the anonymity of the cyber world, the professional needs to remain aware of the vulnerable young person at the other end reaching out for assurance and help.
The best way forward is for the government to form partnerships with organisations that are developing their own internet service provisions. The investment should not necessarily be made in loud and flashy public relations exercises, but rather more quietly, by putting resources into the training of highly specialised personnel.
Reaching out to troubled youth is a viable, attainable and potentially revolutionary process of service intervention, and should be given the highest priority.
Dr Rosanna Wong is executive director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups