They lock themselves away in their bedrooms, afraid to face society, and their numbers are growing in Hong Kong. But with the help of animals, a programme is bringing these "hidden youths" out of their shells.
Known as social anxiety disorder, the hidden youth phenomenon was first identified in Japan about a decade ago. In recent years, the problem has surfaced across the globe. In Hong Kong, cheap, fast internet makes it easier to stay isolated for a longer period of time.
In 2007, there were an estimated 18,500 hidden youths aged 15 to 24 years in Hong Kong, but that figure had almost certainly increased, said clinical psychologist Dr Paul Wong Wai-ching, who recently evaluated the programme, launched two years ago.
A tough job market in recent years has worsened the problem of hidden youths, said Wong.
Under the programme, funded in part by the government and run by the Chinese Evangelical Zion Church, young people either visit a youth centre in Tsz Wan Shan to learn pet grooming skills or are visited at home with animals. Most of the participants are finding jobs and venturing back into society.
Wong said: "This is a growing problem in Hong Kong and around the world. Young people have become more educated but after they graduate, they sometimes don't get good jobs and then lose hope."
One problem is finding those suffering from the disorder, Wong added.
"Hong Kong has one of the highest internet and smartphone penetration rates, so more young people are connected with the world, but not in a physical sense," he said.
For Tsz Wai, 17, an abandoned dog called Fat Fat was her lifeline back to society. A few years ago, she quit school, after Form Two, when a habit of skipping physical education classes turned into weeks of staying at home.
She ended up spending 15 months at home, rejecting invitations from friends and despairing about her future. "I had no self-esteem," she said.
She recently started a one-year paid internship at the youth centre, and now hopes to get a job as a pet groomer.
"When I see the animals, I feel happy," the soft-spoken teen said.
The project has been extended for two years after it secured another round of funding, for 100 young people in the East Kowloon area.
"The changes are so great," said social worker Steven Lai Lap-hin, who works with hidden youths. "It's difficult to build that language and rapport, but after the programme, the youths have their goals and can find a job."
William Tang, 21, struggled to find a job after finishing Form Five. After taking several training courses, he gave up. "I had no motivation and low self-esteem," he said.
He spent six months cooped up at home, playing computer games and surfing the net. But after the programme, he regained his confidence with an internship at the centre, where he works with stray dogs and cats. "Every day is very fufilling, and I feel I can finally do something myself," he said.