Initiatives are being taken to protect minors from online crimes.

Police departments around the nation have been instructed by the National Police Agency to ferret out online posts seeking sex partners, and to alert minors through official accounts while sending stern e-mail warnings to the posters. And charges are to be brought against individuals whose messages are deemed vicious.

The number of minors under the age of 18 who have become involved in crimes through social media has grown steadily in recent years, topping 1,800 in 2018.

In December 2019, a Tochigi Prefecture man was indicted for allegedly luring a 12-year-old Osaka schoolgirl on Twitter to his residence. But crimes of this nature are no longer rare today.

According to a Cabinet Office survey, the majority of junior and senior high school pupils have their own smartphones, as do almost 40 percent of children who are still in primary school. Since this makes it unrealistic to simply take away their phones, plans need to be worked out on the premise that the youngsters will continue to access the internet every day.

Schools teach children what they should know about social media. At home, children should be given age-appropriate warnings about internet users who assume false identities by lying about their gender or age. The youngsters also should be told to abide by certain rules, such as never to agree to meet in person anyone they know only on social media.

In the meantime, it is perfectly normal for troubled adolescents to not want to share their worries or problems with anyone too close, but would reach out to third-party individuals for advice and guidance.

To help them do that, it would be an excellent idea to establish online counseling sites that teenagers can access easily and casually, so they won't unknowingly turn to dangerous predators for help.

And there actually are such sites that are already in operation.

Nifty Corp., one of Japan's top internet service providers, manages a web forum where children respond to messages posted by their troubled peers. But for security's sake, the company screens all messages and responses before uploading them on the forum, and also helps first-time social media users to navigate the site safely while they learn the rules and proper manners.

And Weeds, a nonprofit organization, hosts a cyberforum for children from broken homes. This service was inspired by the NPO leader's own painful childhood experience of being unable to seek help from school teachers or friends at the time of the parents' divorce.

Weeds also accepts e-mail requests for help and offers free telephone counseling, and arranges face-to-face sessions or will contact experts if necessary.

"Ikizura-bitto," a suicide-prevention chat site on social media, deals with 150 to 250 teenagers every month. But the site also gets cases from all other groups, and because only those requiring urgent attention can be given top-priority treatment, many cases end up in a "gray zone" and are not dealt with as carefully as they should be, which the chat site operator finds disturbing.

Ultimately, manpower and money hold the key to the successful continuation of such undertakings. Serious studies are needed to determine how best to make use of donations and subsidies so that society can systematically support them.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 15