“We are especially worried about girls in primary schools,” Wu said on Saturday.
“We’ve seen scammers approaching them online, calling them pretty and adorable. After gaining the girls’ trust, the scammers ask for sexually explicit pictures, and blackmail them for more.”
She said the whole process could happen in just a few days.
Police warned in a recent letter to parents that summer holidays were a “golden time” for scammers to contact children through social media and gaming platforms.
Recent victims included a nine-year-old girl who was tricked into sharing nude photos of herself by a “friend” on an online gaming platform in exchange for game props.
Police added that a Form One pupil lost HK$7,000 worth of online game weapons to a scammer who posed as a site administrator and accused him of stealing the items.
In a survey by the Family Planning Association last year, 3 per cent of girls and 7 per cent of boys in secondary school said they had done “naked chats” before.
Wu said boys were often targeted for money, recalling the case of a junior high school pupil who lost HK$80,000 to a scammer who threatened to publish nude photos of him taken during a naked chat.
The case only came to light after he was caught stealing his parents’ money. The boy also borrowed money from friends and relatives.
“It is common for children to try to handle the matter on their own, though they do not know what they can do, and that will upset their parents too,” she said. “Therefore, one focus of our education efforts is to flag a case as soon as possible.”
But it was not easy for frontline workers to identify potential victims either, as there were no set patterns.
Elvis Ng Ho-hei, senior manager of the youth service at the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, said most victims who fell into social networking traps were not addicted to the internet.
Ng said his organisation handled more than 400 cases involving unhealthy digital habits in 2022, double the number of previous years. While most cases involved internet addiction, 10 per cent were related to scams, cyberbullying and social networking traps.
“Under the pandemic, students spent more time online and exposed themselves to more cyber risks, like scams and cyberbullying, but parents also reported more cases as they were able to keep a closer eye on their children,” Ng said.
He said younger children were falling prey to digital traps, pointing to the case of a Primary Four pupil who posted suggestive dancing videos of herself on YouTube using moves she learned on TikTok, and shared Zoom links with strangers who asked to meet her.
He warned that more children were also using dating apps, the riskiest platforms.
“It takes more steps to reach a victim on social media platforms like Instagram, but on dating apps, all it takes to start a conversation is a swipe,” Ng said.
Ng said more anti-scam information was not really what children needed.
“They are deceived by feelings … trust, love and friendship they felt from online friends misled them,” he said. “The same tricks work on many adults, too.”
He said unfulfilled emotional needs were identified when they spoke to children being sent for intervention and taking care of their feelings was the first thing to do, before rebuilding their digital habits.
“They may not have a lot of friends in real life, and could hardly speak to their friends and family, that’s why they sought friendship from the internet,” he said.
“And some spent too much time and money on games because that’s the only way they felt recognised and appreciated.”
A 2016 study by Chinese University found that a good family relationship was directly related to positive digital habits among youth, he added.
Issac Yu Chun-yeung, a registered counselling psychologist at the Counselling and Research Centre of Shue Yan University, said family communication was crucial in building children’s positive digital habits and reducing the risks of being conned.
“The parenting style commonly adopted by Chinese families often involves blaming and scolding,” he said.
“But that will easily backfire on adolescents, driving them to rely on their own instincts and judgment, so as to prove they are capable of making right decisions.”
Yu said teenagers often sought independence but adults frequently called them immature, giving rise to family conflicts.
He advised parents to try to find out their children’s interests, and accept their need for gaming and using social media, as well as their curiosity about sex, while lecturing should be left to the end, with confidence and trust given to children.
“It is important to build an open atmosphere at home in which everyone is welcome to pour their heart out, and the feelings should be respected by other members,” Yu said.
“In that way, children will be encouraged to seek help when they need it, but do bear in mind parents should not expect them to disclose everything.”
Polly Chan Suk-yee, principal of the Yaumati Catholic Primary School (Hoi Wang Road), said her school would issue notices to warn parents about common cyber risks faced by children over the summer holidays.
“There is an increasing trend of online crimes, no matter whether it’s young children or the general public, all face more risks,” said Chan, vice-chairwoman of the Aided Primary School Heads Association. “We will enhance efforts in anti-scam education for parents and students.”
Chan also encouraged parents to install apps on young children’s devices to filter out improper content.