Mongolia Field Note #5, author: Scott Parker
One of the societal costs of Mongolia’s transition from a communist to a free market economy in the 1990’s was a new lower class that could no longer provide for their children. Hundreds of these children ended up living on the streets and in the sewers with no adult supervision (UNICEF, 2003). But over the past ten years, as a result of economic advances, an influx of charitable organizations, and the development of government-run child welfare, it has been reported that there are now more than enough resources to provide for all the children on the streets (Kalika, 2016). Yet even with beds, clothes, and food ready at hand, 60 children remain on the streets, with more joining their ranks monthly (Solongo, 2016). This article looks into the situation of these children, for whom current outreach strategies are ineffective.
Many child welfare professionals in Mongolia ascribe to a theory that this intractable contingent of street youth are victims of a society-wide video game addiction epidemic (Ayurzana, 2013). One hundred percent of street children interviewed for this study (N=22) use public gaming centers (internet cafes) as their primary source of shelter. While there they socialize, play online games (primarily the first-person shooter Counterstrike, and team strategy game Dota, for an average of 3 hours per day) and sleep. One night in such an establishment costs the equivalent of $1.50, which is relatively easily obtained. Smaller children can beg for money (cashing in their cuteness for as much as $20 a day) and pick pockets, while the big kids, no longer receiving public sympathy, may extort from the youngsters or pick pockets.
In an effort to cut off their supply of games, in 2013 the Central Police Department sponsored legislation requiring internet cafes to close by 11 pm (Ayurzana, 2016). A videogame addiction clinic was developed at the State Mental Hospital where delinquent gamers in the legal system are sent for detox and rehabilitation. So far, these strategies seem to have had little impact on the problem.
To gain insight into the role of gaming in the lives of these children, twenty-two were given the Problematic Videogame Playing scale (Tejeiro et al. 2002). Four (18 percent) said they consider their gaming problematic, and eleven (50 percent) met the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of addiction. This diagnostic scale, however, may be misleading because it has not been cross-culturally normed. One of its nine questions asks the child if they have ever lied, stole, or fought to play video games. The assumption is that such anti-social measures could only be motivated by an addictive compulsion; a rational deduction when assessing gamers in developed nations. In Mongolia, however, resorting to such behavior to gain access to gaming could come from an understandable desperation for shelter (escaping the elements in Mongolia’s -40 degree winters can be a matter of life and death).
The fact that all street gamers interviewed came from broken, indigent, or abusive homes, and all former street children interviewed eventually grew out of the habit, suggests that rather than an addiction, their gaming may constitute a strategy for coping with homelessness, boredom, social isolation (online gaming is highly social
If they are not suffering from videogame addiction, why do children fleeing from unhealthy home environments not make it to a shelter? The first reason is systemic in nature, and relatively simply solved. Due to bureaucratic dysfunction and a general culture of non-interference, newly homeless children intercepted by the welfare system are being returned to unfit households, from which they promptly flee, determined to never again be caught. Establishing a system whereby families suspected of abuse are investigated and parental rights are removed as appropriate would go a long way towards finding a suitable home for newcomers to street life.
The second reason is complicated and requires a more nuanced approach: Many children come to prefer life on the streets. While a disgracefully large number of children live in situations of extreme poverty, abuse, and neglect, only a small percentage take matters into their own hands by striking off on their own (Aptekar & Stoecklin, 2014). Studies show children who make this leap often possess greater self-efficacy and problem-solving skills than those in similar situations who stay home. Indeed, most run-aways in developing countries prove better at taking care of their needs than their parents, as seen in study after study showing greater mental health, nutrition, and life satisfaction among this group compared to their siblings who stayed home (Veale et al. 2000). Street children effectively become adults, assuming responsibility for their own welfare far earlier (the youngest interviewed for this study was six years old) than society’s construct of adulthood allows.
Our instinctive desire, and the child welfare system’s current objective, is to domesticate such youth, forcing them back into a state of childlike dependence. But once they have made the jump to self-sufficiency, the structure and protection which many children find comforting, these children find suffocating. Behavioral issues ensue and they inevitably return to their compatriots on the streets. This pattern was found in countless interviews with both professionals and children. Interventions focused on empowerment, rather than domestication, have found success in similar situations in other countries (Aptekar & Stoecklin, 2014). Such approaches start by recognizing the child’s hard-won independence, then provide tools for them to pursue their own pro-social goals, which may or may not include shelter. By collaborating instead of treating, the strengths which helped these children overcome such staggering obstacles can be developed and utilized to improve their collective situation.
By ensuring that children are not returned to unfit households, and helping those who have gained independence achieve their pro-social goals, we could see the end of child homelessness in Mongolia.
Aptekar, L., & Stoecklin, D. (2014). Street children and homeless youth. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer.
Ayurzana, C. (2013). Factor of Child Homelessness in Ulaanbaatar. Central Police Department.
Ayurzana, C. (2016). Interview with Chief of Child Welfare. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Kalika, D. (2016, June 29). Lotus Children’s Centre. Personal interview.
Solongo, B. (2016). “Unsupervised Children Roster.” For A Good Future NGO. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
UNICEF Mongolia. (2013). Annual Report.
Veale, A., Taylor, M., & Linehan, C. (2000). Psychological perspectives of ‘abandoned and abandoning’ street children. In C. Panter-Brick & M. Smith (Eds.), Abandoned children (pp. 131–145). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. CyberPsychology & behavior, 9(6), 772-775.
About the Author
Scott Parker graduated with his Master of Social Work degree from the University of Utah in the Spring of 2016. He performed research on homelessness at the Utah Criminal Justice Center for two years, and now is a certified social worker performing psychotherapy in Salt Lake City. He has been to Mongolia five times since 2005, speaks, reads, and writes the language, and has collaborated with Ulaanbaatar’s Chief of Child Welfare and the National University of Mongolia on social issues research since 2014.