Social workers trying to connect with troubled young people are turning to the internet. Where once an outreach worker could stroll onto a soccer pitch and make contacts, these days they are tapping into cyberspace. 'Outreach services must go online,' senior government social worker Hidi Lam Yuen-ting said. 'It is not as easy to bump into youth at risk in the street as it used to be.' She said young people participated, contributed and shared feelings much more readily online than they would face-to-face. In recognition of this need, the government earmarked HK$17 million to launch a three-year pilot scheme for three welfare groups: the YMCA, the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association of Hong Kong and Caritas. 'In the past, we'd go to a soccer pitch with a football, trying to approach troubled youths. Now we must try to reach these youngsters online,' Caritas Hong Kong Youth and Community Service Centre supervisor Chan Wai-leung said. This month, Caritas started using search engines to help identify young people facing problems like drug abuse, or difficulties with sexual and mental health. Typing key words and phrases like 'ketamine', 'addicted' and 'want to quit drug', social workers scoured through reams of messages using these 'pointer words' that cropped up in discussion forums, social networking sites and blogs. 'Our workers then try to approach the young people via these forums or sites,' Chan said. 'We do not disclose that we are social workers on public postings, but in all private contact through MSN and SMS, we immediately reveal who we are.' Since the service was launched two weeks ago, the centre identified 120 postings possibly written by troubled youngsters and managed to have dialogues with 45 of them. Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun, of the University of Hong Kong's department of social work and administration, said social services had to change with the times and online outreach allowed contact with those who might otherwise be inaccessible. 'But we should remember that welfare service is all about human-to-human interaction,' he said. 'At the end of the day, workers must meet clients face to face in order to help them.'