ON a rainy night in a New Territories public housing estate, a group of youngsters with tinted hair loiter at the back of a building. Ah-keung (not his real name), sitting on the steps with a beer bottle at his side, holds a paper tissue soaked with paint thinner over his nose. The half-litre bottle he bought for $7, filled with the strong-smelling liquid, gives him 'moments of pleasure, a means to escape the everyday frustrations of life'. Paint thinner, like alcohol, is a depressant which causes the mind to lose its stability. Sniffing paint thinner, or 'hyteen' as the youngsters normally call it, is a popular, cheap and effective method for teenagers who want to get high. It is also a growing trend, says the Narcotics Division. Ah-keung's habit is shared by hundreds of other youths, many of whom have grown up in newer housing estates. 'They are typically 13 to 19 years old,' said Mr Wong, a social worker at the Hong Kong Children and Youth Services who declined further identification. He helps a number of young paint thinner abusers in a public housing estate in the New Territories. 'They play around in their district, sniffing paint thinner and abusing other substances such as cough syrup. Some of them are kicked out of school, some are school dropouts who can't deal with the academic workload,' he said. Ah-keung, 18, is a longtime user of thinner. His father, a heroin trafficker, is constantly in and out of prison. When he is not behind bars the family home is disrupted by arguments over his brushes with the law. 'There is no peace in the house,' said Ah-keung. 'My parents fight with each other all the time. It's chaotic. Whenever I feel frustrated, I turn to 'hyteen',' he said. To help pay the family's way he worked a summer during Primary Six as a cleaner in a restaurant. When he finished Form Two, he worked in a garage in Hung Hom. Now he is working in a delivery company. 'There are many things to think about, like my family. I feel frustrated, I don't know what the future holds for me,' he said. 'When I first did it [paint thinner] the smell was bad and I felt dizzy. But now I am used to it. It gives me an instant of pleasure. I feel better right away.' Now every night after work, he gets together with his friends at the housing estate to take 'hyteen'. 'I 'hyteen' whenever I don't want to think or when I am bored or frustrated. Society tells me I must make money. It is very realistic but cruel. I feel as if I am being controlled by somebody all my life,' he said. He wants to quit his habit, succeeding once when he stayed off the thinner for four months. 'I was tired of it,' he said. 'But I took up the habit when my parents started fighting again. 'I'm aware of the ill effects. 'When you have been sniffing for a long time, it causes you to have brain cancer and respiratory difficulties. It makes you think and move slowly. In the meantime, I can still control my thinking.' Ah-keung's friend, Chi-wai (not his real name), has been sniffing thinner since he was 14. Now at 16, he has been off it for two months. A school dropout, Chi-wai stopped studying after he finished Form one. His parents have been separated for three years, and Chi-wai stays with his father, a construction site worker, while his younger brother stays with his mother. 'I started to 'hyteen' out of curiosity. I was able to stop for a year, but then I turned back to sniffing it again. Now I've been off the hook for two months,' he said, taking a cigarette from his friend. 'When I 'hyteen', I have fantasies. I feel like I am floating in the air. After I found out that 'hyteen' will kill brain cells I became more cautious,' he said. Chi-wai has been out of work for two years. His father keeps pushing him to look for a job, but he can't find one. He worked in a restaurant when he was 14, but he didn't get along with his colleagues and quit. Now Chi-wai gets up every morning and listens to music, plays soccer or snooker. After this summer, he hopes to start studying architecture in a technical school in Kowloon Bay. 'After I study, I won't 'hyteen' but I will stay with my friends. I like them a lot, they are very loyal and are willing to help,' he said. A social worker has tried to help Chi-wai and his friends quit by organising outdoor activities for them, like taking them to Ocean Park or camping. Chi-wai has also volunteered to paint houses. 'It is easy to buy a bottle of paint thinner, which is only $7 and most youngsters can afford it,' he said. The backgrounds of these kids are similar - they have family problems, they feel bored, unhappy, and are influenced by their friends. ' 'Hyteen' is only a symptom - like running away from home, stealing, slitting wrists - of a problem. We must concentrate on the core of the problem,' Mr Wong said. Many of them come from large extended families. Since there are many children in the family, the parents often have neither the time or interest to take good care of each one. The result is they grow up free and wild. In a nuclear family, parents strive to earn as much money as possible to satisfy the materialistic needs of the family, according to social workers. Parental care is replaced by the school and youth centres. There is a considerable distance between parents and children who can't find support in the family. They hardly ever see their parents. 'There are many new housing estates in the New Territories. When families move in, they have a weak communication network. Their relatives live far away. When problems arise, help is not at hand,' Mr Wong said. When parents have conflicts, the easiest way out is to file for divorce, but the victims are the children. Many of Mr Wong's clients come from single families. 'Many schools use academic results to raise their reputation. They can't accept the 'bad elements' in their schools and cause these students to think of themselves as failures. 'The drop-outs leave school and can't find a good job. They hang around at home with nothing to do all day long,' Mr Wong said. A nine-year free education policy doesn't leave children with much choice after they finish Form Three. Professional schools emphasise academic results. Vocational training schools do not accept youths aged 13 and 14. The school system doesn't make students see their value. The most important social value in Hong Kong is money, said Mr Wong. When they can't earn as much money as a better educated person, they feel frustrated. 'Kids don't have the patience to find other ways to deal with their frustrations,' he said. 'To relieve their bad feelings or feelings of incompetence, they turn to substance abuse. When they use these methods more and more, it becomes a habit.' He tries to help these youngsters by expanding their range of choices. 'We help them find ways to deal with their problems, like how to get along with their family. When they can't continue school, we help them find other ways out. 'We also help them build up self-confidence and to recognise their own worth. We make them see that they have ability, so they gradually face their circumstances with confidence. 'Through some programmes and activities, we train them to be volunteers, using their own abilities to help others. We create challenging tasks for them to do, like climbing mountains and taking part in general knowledge quiz games,' Mr Wong said. He has been working with his clients for two years, and he can see they are willing to be helped. 'They have many needs, waiting for people to help them,' Mr Wong said. Lee Fai-ping, deputy general secretary of Wu Oi Christian Centre, works with youngsters who take drugs. 'Kids take different drugs in different districts in the New Territories. In Tai Po, kids sniff paint thinner, in Sheung Shui, they drink cough syrup and in Tuen Mun, they take pills,' Mr Lee said. He points out that in the past two years, paint thinner abuse in Tai Po has become more serious. Sniffers can be found in Kwong Fuk Estate, Tai Wo Estate, Fu Shin Estate and Tai Po Centre in the New Territories. 'I tell them not to sniff thinner, it's bad for their health, but they are influenced by their friends and want to follow the trend. 'Many of them come from fishing families. Their parents are not well educated and know little about contraceptives. They like to have lots of children but they can't manage all of them,' Mr Lee said. While there are government controls over the sale of cough medicine - which two months ago were tightened - there is no legislation to control the sale of paint thinner. The Government continues its efforts to warn young people against taking drugs. Drug education is integrated into the school curriculum for primary and secondary schools. The Narcotics Division conducts regular talks for parents and students to reinforce preventive drug education messages. Perhaps the message is getting through. Said Chi-wai: 'I would like to warn other kids not to 'hyteen'. Don't touch this stuff. It wrecks your life.'