Help Hong Kong's hidden youths come out of their shell

Paul Yip and Melissa Chan say Hong Kong must find better ways to help the growing number of young people who opt out of society, before their isolation and lack of hope lead them to hurt themselves and others

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 3:30am

The recent murder cases involving Hong Kong youths have undoubtedly left people shaken and caused many to question just what has gone wrong with our society.

Discussions have primarily been about the "hidden youths" in Hong Kong, that is, those who are neither in education nor employment, and spend most of their time at home playing video games. Typically, they have poor social skills but are very active in the cyber world. Although the murder cases are certainly extreme, the underlying issues must be taken seriously.

The phenomenon of "hidden youths" has drawn attention in Japan and Britain for over a decade. They are called hikikomori in Japan and "neet" in Britain (a young person not in education, employment or training). In Japan, the government defines hikikomori as anyone who has completely withdrawn from society for more than six months. Psychiatrists and psychologists are even proposing to add this to the list of recognised medical conditions. In Britain, the focus is on young people aged between 16 and 24 who could become a source of social unrest.

In Hong Kong, there has been no systematic research into the phenomenon, but youth unemployment figures may give us some idea of the problem. Government data shows that our youth unemployment rate of 11.6 per cent, in the third quarter of last year, is no worse than the 10-year same-quarter average of 13.8 per cent. Our 2011 rate of 9.3 per cent was higher than Singapore's (6.7 per cent), comparable with Japan's (8 per cent) and Korea's (9.6 per cent), and lower than those of most Western societies, (typically 15 per cent in the US and Britain).

However, numbers alone do not reveal the mental stresses young people face. Many hidden youths are unable to establish themselves properly in society, even though some may have high academic qualifications. Their strengths are underdeveloped and their interests under-recognised, and they have no one to talk to. Their withdrawal from society is a loss to us all.

How can we mitigate the problem? Given their relatively poor social skills and low self-esteem, many hidden youths choose to stay at home and play video games, which may give them a sense of satisfaction missing elsewhere. Over-protective parents play a part. Some have described the hikikomori in Japan as a "middle class" phenomenon, as they live under the shelter of their well-off parents.

Schools, too, have a role to play. Bullying, at school or on the internet, hurts self-esteem, and may create isolation and anti-social behaviour.

Moreover, hidden youths often feel lost. Career counselling services at school may not be enough to help them identify their personal strengths, so they are unable to see their own value and importance to society. We have witnessed an increase in cases of self-harm and suicide among teenagers in our community.

Certainly, life for today's youths isn't any easier than for other groups. For those with work, their pay rises can't compensate for inflation, never mind the soaring property prices. For them, it seems that hard work does not pay off and they can't see light at the end of the tunnel. People who lose hope will also lose the drive to improve themselves.

The government has implemented some measures in response to young people's needs, for example, by providing training for skilled technical work to those who are not academically inclined. But, disappointingly, the scheme has not been well received by parents and the youths themselves. Blue-collar jobs are stigmatised in Hong Kong, especially among parents. Such mindsets and our social values need to be overhauled, while skilled workers should receive better pay and support.

A government-funded youth programme uses the web to reach out to at-risk youths. Social workers try to engage them via online forums and Facebook, to provide online counselling where necessary. The aim is to empower the youths, improve their social skills and encourage them to engage and rejoin the community.

A longer-term goal should be to expand job opportunities for them. In recent years, the internet has been flooded with text and photos by our young people that are astute parodies of hot-button issues, giving us a glimpse of their creativity. They just need opportunities to let this creativity flourish.

In addition, the media can help through the responsible and balanced reporting of news involving youth violence and/or suicide, to avoid the risk of copycat crimes among the vulnerable.

We must remember that horrific crimes like the ones reported recently are extreme cases. Murder and suicide rates have decreased over the past decade. Hong Kong is still a safe city.

But the problems of hidden youths must be addressed. Society should not stigmatise these young people. Our city is not dying (to recall a phrase popularised by a television show), but it is certainly not well.

We don't need knee-jerk responses to the crisis; we need long-term sustainable efforts to support our youth. Investing in today's young people is the best insurance for tomorrow. Every one of us can help our youths see a bright future.

Paul Yip is director, and Melissa Chan intervention research officer, at the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong